Kolkata, India, 1999
Thrust your voice upward from the navel. Say, aaaaaaaa. Why does your voice quiver? The audience from the last row of the open air theater should hear every syllable that Binodini dasi utters. Haven’t they paid to see the jatra pala? Don’t yell.
Thamma, my grandmother, neither met the late nineteenth century star of Bengali theater, Binodini dasi, nor played the titular character in the jatra pala based on her life, Notee Binodini. Yet, Binodini dasi is thamma’s go-to example while she trains my voice. And if our parakeet shrieks at that opportune moment, thamma has yet another task cut out for me. While the bird tosses its tiny tray of chick peas, thamma asks me: Where is its chirp coming from? Heart, stomach, or gut? The throat is never an option.
I leave the cup of lukewarm water on the sink to answer thamma. Wrong answer but, of course, I can forgo gargling now because thamma will set out to explain everything I need to know about tone and pitch on the off chance I land a legendary role in some play some day. Some mornings my father interrupts this ritual with the anecdote in which he discovers an actor playing Sita in a jatra adaptation of the epic Ramayana stand with legs apart and pee behind our house.
That vignette is my father’s singular memory associated with jatra, the folk-theater form once popular all over Bengal. As a toddler he accompanied thamma—his step-mother—during a couple of her tours across villages. Thamma remembers the ease with which my father adapted himself to the routine of the jatra company, which employed her. My aunts say that my father has seen more of thamma’s performances than any of his siblings even though he was the youngest when grandfather married her following the demise of his first wife. Thamma quit jatra within a year of the wedding. Hadn’t Binodini too chosen domestic bliss over the stage?
I recall thamma’s heydays as an actor before my English teacher while auditioning for our school’s annual play. Soon, I conjure a sepia-filtered thamma to take the center stage of my tall tale, which continues from the drama audition period to the recess. Thamma starts out as a dancer in the Apsara Opera. During the interval of the reigning star Jyoti Rani’s scintillating performance as Behula, a major character in the epic poem written in praise of the snake-goddess Manasa, dancers like thamma entertain the audience.
While opening my tiffin box, I realize I do not actually know when thamma became an actor. The director of her company, Sukhen da, believed that female actors should not play women on stage because that would be too real, making acting redundant. So, male actors like Jyoti Rani played female characters. What made Sukhen da change his mind? I have to extract the specifics from thamma but I cannot tell my audience to come back next day for the rest of my story. This is no Bengali melodrama on TV that can hold people’s interest over thirteen hundred episodes. Mom says the style of acting in such shows is too loud, akin to jatra. Thamma retorts with her ‘everything is jatra’ aphorism, wherein jatra stands not only for theater but also for its literal meaning in Bengali: journey. Meanwhile, I binge Friends on Star World.
That season Sukhen da’s jatra company and Apsara Opera were travelling across Dakshin Para. Thus I begin my lore. Their opening performance was scheduled at the dilapidating mansion of an erstwhile landholding family. Following the dusty ride to their destination, the theater and dance ensemble was only too glad to be served lunch. Along with steamed basmati rice, large pieces of hilsa fish—oh how I love it—sizzled on fresh banana leaves. Jyoti Rani relished the zing of the mustard curry as humid breeze flirted with his hair. Who would’ve known that this mustard-hilsa would cost him the evening’s performance?
With a fishbone stuck in the throat, Behula could not possibly persuade the goddess Manasa to restore the life of her husband, Lakhinder. But Behula’s part was pivotal and the jatra had already been publicized. What was to be done? That’s when thamma stepped in. She had watched Jyoti Rani rehearse a million times and knew when Jyoti sighed, twitched his fingers, or knit his brows. She told Sukhen da as much. However, you could not put up a Behula-Lakhinder pala without Jyoti Rani. People from far and wide not only came for his stellar acting but also to listen to the pala’s songs in Jyoti Rani’s mellow voice. Besides, will the host family allow a jatra pala with a female actor to be held on their premises? Our audience is vulnerable, Sukhen da insisted. But, Jyoti Rani coughed up blood while dressing up. That’s how thamma debuted, hilsa willing.
Next day I learn that I have been selected to play an angel in our school’s Christmas play. I only get to mouth two soliloquies, but I’ll take it. English ma’am, meanwhile, asks me whether thamma will be willing to give a brief lecture to the school students about the folk theatre of Bengal. I gladly agree on thamma’s behalf and relay the news to my mom.
Mom is livid for me advertising thamma’s jatra connections. Her exasperation increases when she hears what I have told to my teacher and classmates about thamma, because, as you know, I hastily bridged the gaps in my knowledge for the sake of pacifying the eager listeners. Mom remains hung up on the specifics such as how will thamma address the audience of an English medium school, what can thamma say about those bit roles she played in legends unfamiliar to my classmates, how do I fabricate stories about jatra without ever having seen one. This last accusation is false.
The saree I envision thamma wear in my story resembles the one the forest goddess Bonbibi wore when the eponymous jatra played at the resort where we put up during our trip to Sunderban tiger reserve. Every winter, my parents and I join a bunch of my father’s friends and their families to get away from the metropolis. We check in to luxury hotels surrounded by shacks, which look straight out of theme park brochures. During the days we tour local markets and farms, and in the evenings, after putting the children to sleep, the parents pour scotch on the rocks and discuss all things they are unable to remember. Thamma never joins us on these trips, except that one year. She had long desired to visit the famous tiger reserve and so, agreed to come along.
The resorts at which we stay line up local entertainment for the evening. Typically it is a group of tribal dancers swinging their hips to percussions. However, the resort in Sunderban had commissioned the Bonbibi jatra pala. But thamma refused to watch it. I was hoping she would tell me what to think of the acting and the production quality but she was too tired from the daytrips. Before retiring to her room, she left a crumpled hundred rupee note with me to give the ten year old actor playing Dukhe: the poor boy offered as a human sacrifice to the evil ruler, Dakkhin Rai, by the greedy merchant—what was his name? When the play was over, my father swapped the note soaked in sweat within my clenched fist for a newer one. He also gave me a few ten rupee ones to distribute among the other actors.
New Jersey, US, 2014
When I close my eyes today, I see thamma sit as the axis of a coracle twirling down a river. Still dressed as Bonbibi, she is on her way to meet the snake goddess, on whose feet she will throw herself. The gods will ask her to dance. She will fumble through the routine footwork of the Apsara repertoire.
I had fallen back on thamma for joining the drama team during my freshman year here. The application form for the first audition prompted us to reflect on our relationship with the stage. I didn’t rely on my own experience of playing an angel in a high school that nobody here knows of to secure me an audition. Instead I evoked thamma’s bequest, elucidating my visceral ties with Bengal’s indigenous theater. Much to the dismay of my parents, who sent me to the US to pursue neuroscience, I ended up majoring in theater.
Yesterday evening was the final performance of my senior year. We had performed the play, my creative translation of Notee Binodini, several times already. On finding me pace up and down backstage, our director, Dory, remarked “Acting is in your blood. Take it easy.” I realized she had not forgotten the bio note I had conveniently constructed. “It is not the stage-fright,” I assured Dory. Mom had called half an hour before the show-time to wish me luck for the performance. She also mentioned that thamma had strangled our eighteen year old parakeet to death before going off to bed herself.