Return Of The Red King


Vishnupriya Sengupta witnesses the resurrection of the late Jyoti Basu at a Hooghly jatra


Photo: Kaushik Mitra

YOU COULD call it his second coming amid lights, action and revolutionary songs. The late Jyoti Basu strutting around a three-tiered stage set against the backdrop of Ganeshpur, a village in Hooghly, inspiring masses with his oratory skill, had the rural audience under a spell.

Aptly titled Alor Shikha Amar Jyoti (Ray of Light, the Immortal Jyoti), the three-hour long jatra on a few milestones in the late Jyoti Basu’s life saw the light of day on March 14, triggering memories of the CPI(M)’s tryst with the agricultural sector.

Villagers were seated cheek by jowl on three sides of the arena. As the tall, imposing actor Gourishankar Panda made a dramatic entrance, bringing alive the late chief minister of West Bengal, it was evident that this was no “historic blunder”. The idea of resurrecting Basu emerged this February in an inconspicuous bylane in Chitpur, the hub of Kolkata’s jatra — a Bengali folk drama form which thrives on melodrama and hyperbole. The focus of the jatra has shifted considerably from mythological to social themes. It has a penchant for bringing alive famous political leaders — from Subhas Chandra Bose and Mujibur Rahman to Hitler and Lenin.

Prashanta Goswami, manager of the 10-year-old troupe Anjali Opera, responsible for the Jyoti Basu production, says, “Jatra has always had an instructive role, especially in the villages. There is so much to learn from Basu’s life. We wanted a fresh face to play the role, so we zeroed in on Panda. Although he doesn’t physically resemble Basu, he is good at character roles.”

A funeral followed by a flashback transported the audience back to the days when Jyoti Basu implemented a pro-proletariat agricultural policy. “It is such a privilege to step into the shoes of a character like Basu,” says an elated Panda, satisfied with his performance in Ganeshpur. A familiar face in TV serials and on the stage, Panda has the requisite experience to pull off a threehour jatra. “Ever since I was offered this role, I have been trying to observe how the CPI(M) patriarch used to walk, talk and even smile — although that was a rarity,” he says drily.

Significantly, the script is shorn of all controversy. It focusses on Basu’s achievements — the Operation Barga that enabled sharecroppers to retain 50 to 75 percent of crops and helped farmers who worked on leased land get the first right to purchase land. “It is difficult to touch upon all aspects of Basu’s life in a span of three hours,” says Ashok De, scriptwriter and director, defending his play. “As Bengalis we should take pride in the fact that Basu held the longest chief ministerial tenure of 23 years in India, and I think it is important to stay clear of propaganda.”

Propaganda or not, what the performance has surely succeeded in doing is jogging one’s memory, which may translate into a rural vote bank in the coming year.


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