Resistance to Power: Subversive Elements in the Folk Performances of Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia

Mir Ahammad Ali, Vidyasagar University, India
Mir Mahammad Ali, Ravenshaw University, Cuttuck, Odisha, India

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


Under the broad domain of Performance Studies, the study of Bengali folk performances, specifically the folk dramas of West Bengal is dynamic and divergent. The folk performances of Bengal like the other folk performances in India are generally created and performed by the preliterate, illiterate or semi-literate people of rural areas and passed down orally from one generation to the other. These performances blended in with ritualistic observances are chiefly meant for the amusement and mere entertainment for the rural village folks. But it is also evident that behind their mere enjoyment, their long inert cry of being deprived and victimized can be detected in a number of folk performances. In such performances like Pata-Pala, Lalita-Sabar, Bhnar-Jatra or Sasthi Mangal of Medinipur, Manasa Mangal of Purulia or Jhapan of Bankura, the performers not only hint that they are being oppressed and ill-treated by the dominant power system of the society, a solemn voice of resistance to that oppressive and dominant discourse of its time in these performances. This paper aims to focus on such specific folk performances of three selected districts of West Bengal (Medinipur, Purualia and Bankura) where the subversive elements in these folk performances serve as resistance to power of the colonial, imperial or zamindari system.


Keywords: Performance Studies, Folk Performances, ritualistic, resistance, power, discourse, subversive, colonial, imperial, zamindari


“Power is everywhere: not that it engulfs everything, but it comes from everywhere.” Michel Foucault

A careful study of the existing folk performances of Bengal reveals that these various folk art forms comprise different elements of performing arts like songs, dances, music, different masks, action etc. Again, the large body of various folk dramatic forms of Bengal is found diversely in different districts of West Bengal. Some of the most popular yet endangered folk dramatic forms are:

Jatra (Yatra) All over West Bengal
Patua-Pala Primarily in Medinipur (West Midnapore), Kalighat (Kolkata)
Sitala Mangal Medinipur
Sasthi Mangal Medinipur
Lalita Sabar Pala Medinipur
Krishna Yatra Medinipur
Churiya-Churiyanir Pala Medinipur
Bhnar Jatra (Yatra) Medinipur, Hoogly, Bankura, Burdwan, North and South 24 Parganas
Jugi Pala (Yogi Pala) Medinipur
Manasa Mangal Purulia and Medinipur
Jhapan, Manasa Bhasan Bankura
Gambhira, Alkap, Domni Malda
Bolan Burdwan and Malda
Chor-Churni Jalpaiguri
Palatiya Jalpaiguri
Bana Bibir Pala South 24 Parganas

Thomas A. Green (1978) in “Toward a Definition of Folk Drama” very insightfully observes:

…virtually all behavior is susceptible to being designated “drama.” A less extreme, but still unsound, line of reasoning operates homologically. In general, this argument maintains that forms such as ritual, festival, pageant, or even baseball which utilize the means of dramatic art (costuming, distinct playing areas, “scripting,” and the like) should be categorized as folk drama (p. 844). [Emphases ours]

Taking this abovementioned rationale that drama comprising “forms such as ritual, festival, pageant” that “utilize the means of dramatic art” is no less evident in Indian folk dramas and more specifically in the folk dramas of West Bengal. The folk performances of Bengal also comprise songs, acting, music, dialogue, facial posture, dance, mask and so on.

What make these indigenous folk performances as ‘dramatic’ is ‘action’ and the element of conflict and numerous forms of folk brawl, be it implicit or explicit. Examples can be seen in Patua-Pala (chiefly found in Medinipur and Kalighat area in Kolkata) in patas like Ganga-Durgar Jhagra (The Quarrel between Ganga and Durga) where the element of conflict is found between goddesses Ganga and Durga to win over Lord Shiva. Again in another performance called Behula Bhasan, alternatively known as Manasa Mangal (Benediction of Manasa), Behula’s sole struggle in winning her husband’s life back against the wretched predestination is full of dramatic actions which evoke empathy in the audience. On the other hand, Bolan, a popular form of dramatic performance in Burdwan and Malda, performed by Shaivites shows a ritualistic amalgam of goddess Shaktism, Shaivism and Vaishnavism. While the large body of performances is ritualistic in origin, others deal with heroic legends, mythological stories and folk tales of love and tragedy as can be seen in Sitala Mangal, Sasthi Mangal, Krishna Yatra, Bolan Yatra, Churiya-Churiyanir Pala of Medinipur or Gambhira and Domni of Malda district, Banabibir Pala in Sundarban area or puppetry in different parts of Bengal.

An audience who is restricted in watching English drama or Modern Bengali theatre (Kolkata city based) only shall find it difficult in understanding and enjoying these folk plays. Rather than the austere division of acts and scenes, these folk plays are usually opened up with a ritualistic invocation (known as Bandana) to different deities of Hindu cult like Saraswati, Krishna or Vishnu. Though some of these performances were sometimes patronized by influential zamindars, almost all the performances are chiefly performed for the targeted rural masses in a huge gathering. These folk performances can be seen as a voice of and voice for the common people.

The true naked face of the society with its binaries between the rich and the poor, the oppressor and the oppressed, the powerful and the powerless, between the master and the slave is craftily presented in these performances. Again, in some performances like Bhanr Yatra, the insolent mien of the zamindar as despotic bully can be seen. But it is also true that wherever there is an exercise of power, it coexists with the subversion or resistance to that dominant power. In some of the performances like Bhnar Yatra, the cruel exercise of power of the powerful are not only being challenged but also subverted and thwarted by the comic yet substantive buffoonery of the Bhnar (Jester) in a carnivalesqe manner. Ushaprasanna Mukherjee (1987) in Bharater Loknatya (Folk Dramas of India) observes the important aspect of folk drama:

Mere delight/entertainment of the masses is not the only objective of the folk drama. Protest against the prevalent injustice, wrong-doings, exploitation and extortion is the prime task of the folk drama. (p. 9)

This can be detected in a number of folk performances of Bengal. For example, Mukherjee (1987) writes:

Gambhira, a distinguished type of folk drama served as a tool of protest against the British ruler in the British colonial period. (p. 9)

There are many folk forms in Bengal where the subversive elements against the British colonial authority can be found. A good example of this can be seen in a particular Patua-Pala from Medinipur called Shaib Pat (Scroll painting about the Story of the British Raj). In her ‘Introduction’ to the book Patuas and Patua Art in Bengal (edited by David J. McCutchion and Suhrid K. Bhowmik), Jill Parvin (1999) mentions that:

Bhowmik pays tribute to McCutchion’s ever sympathetic appreciation of the Bengal he himself loves so much. For most people who met him there was a feeling that this was no mere academic, this was someone in vital contact with life. Just before his death he wrote from England about the genocide going on in what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. His interest in collecting examples of the Sahib Pat [Engrejer pat] which depicts the oppressive behaviour of the British in the days of the Raj is a further indication of this need to be at the heart of things (p. v).

This particular pata depicts the subaltern history of the first tribal revolt known as Chuar Rebellion in the Medinipur and Bankura districts of West Bengal against the excessive taxation, oppressive demands and economic distress caused by the East India Company. This scroll painting very acutely presents how under the banner of Trade Act the native weaker sections of the society were being exploited and extorted by the British Raj. This pata also presents the subsequent uprising of the native people. This pata can be looked upon as a tool of resistance as it presents the subversive elements of threat and resistance against the dominant colonial power of the British regime. As a result, such kinds of patas were proscribed at the time of the Freedom Movement in Medinipur and famous patua artists like Late Rajani Chitrakar and others of Medinipur (who took a leading role) were being branded as “terrorist freedom fighters” (McCutchion & Bhowmik 88) and subsequently were persecuted. In this pata history and art go hand in hand. This pata basically narrates the story of revolt by the two leaders, Jugal and Kishore and their persecution by the British officials. This is one of the few patas that is written in prose and the narrative song describes their fates in the judgement:

Now the judgement of all these thieves is taking place. Where? Calcutta High Court. Behind a screen, the Sahib’s wives are enjoying the fun. Let’s see what judgement the sahibs make on the thieves.

The sahibs make this judgement. Some will be impaled, some will be hanged some will be sent to Daymal, others to Harinbari, some will be placed under close observation, some will be eaten up by greyhounds, others by tigers – these were the judgement on the thieves.

Jugal and Kishor were the leaders of eighteen kahans of dacoits. To the beating of drums, they hung the two brothers from a scaffold at Chatraganj-Naldanga Patharghat (p. 90).

It is true that this particular pata had several versions and it is nearly impossible to identify and locate the original one. Another interesting fact that can be noted is that the mastery, witticism and subtlety with which the Patuas (scroll painters) present such patas that these hardly put them in direct charge of any criminal offence. At this juncture, McCutchion and Bhowmik’s (1999) insightful observation can be cited that:

Some pictures were capable of various interpretations so that the government could not assign blame to the Patuas although they were inciting the people to stand up for freedom against the British Raj (p. 89).

There are several other folk art forms which allegorically present the deplorable condition of the rural masses, how they are tormented and tyrannized. One such example is again a Patua-Pala centered on a social issue called Maacher Biye (Marriage of the Fish) in which diverse pictures of the submarine world and the descriptions of its ecological cycle are craftily presented in a fable like fashion. On a particular occasion of the marriage of Darriyan Maachh (Dariyan Fish), all the other fishes of the same pond accompany him in this joyful marital procession. At that time the other fishes are performing diverse activities like the playing of the tabla by Koi fish, playing of the harmonium by Katla fish, playing of the flute by Soal fish and so on. As the ecstatic procession comes to an end they face a severe crisis because of the sudden threat of being devoured by a large Boal fish. If we closely scrutinize we can find that the very idea of Maatsonay emerges from this fable like representation of this pata. Just as the Boal fish threatens and wants to devour all the other less powerful fishes of the pond, in human society such situation is always evident…Full Text PDF