Few people recall the name of Jadu Hajra today.
When we were young, however, Jadu Hajra was not just a name but a brand. From Chabbish Porgana to Murshidabad, and between Bardhaman and Khulna, everyone interested in jatra knew of Jadu Hajra. They said that a wooden doll would sit up straight upon hearing Jadu Hajra’s name. Now if you tell me that you never saw Jadu Hajra playing the role of King Nol, well, I would say that you missed one of the best things life has to offer.
I was fortunate enough to see him perform.
And what an amazing experience it was. I was not more than twelve or thirteen years of age at the time. I had to escort a newly-wed girl to her parents’ house. It was winter and it was cold. The newly-wed was a few years older than I was, and therefore, she was kind of like a guardian too. Theirs was a big house full of people. And there were two boys in particular that were the root of all the problems. They were older than I was and to this day I don’t know why they picked on me.
One of them was about fifteen years old and his name was Jatin. He asked me, “What class are you in at school, boy?”
“Can you tell me what ‘sneezing minus coughing’ means?”
I stared at him. What was he talking about?
I studied at a village school; hence didn’t even know what “minus” meant. I remained silent and so he prodded me, “What’s a hobgoblin?”
I knew English, but I had only read very simple stories till then. I knew nothing of hobgoblins. So I flushed in embarrassment and had to admit that I didn’t know the answer.
However, my ordeal did not end here. It seemed that God had created Jatin especially to torment me. He held out both his hands and said, “If this many bananas cost one paisa, how much would the price of five bananas be?”
I kept on thinking miserably how many bananas he could carry in his hands, and he laughed outright proving how little I knew. Since that incident, I avoided him. Not only was he older than me, but he had also studied at an English medium school. What was the point of trying to befriend him? All he would do was make me feel inferior.
Yet, for all the humiliation I felt because of him, I was grateful to him too for one reason. He was the reason why I got into Jadu Hajra’s acting. Just before dusk he approached me, saying, “Hey, what’s your name, there’s a public Jatra performance at Rajganj Bazar. Would you like to go with us?”
Rajganj was about five miles away from where we were. We would have to walk all the way, but I got so excited at the prospect of watching the jatra that I forgot everything else. I even forgot the fact that I would have to endure Jatin’s taunting all the way there.
As you can guess, Jatin and his companions kept making fun of me all the way to Rajganj. The family environment I grew up in was very different and there could be no possibilities there of experiencing the kind of profanity Jatin and his friends used so casually. My sensibility was visibly wounded by their behaviour and ways.
But once we reached Rajganj Bazar they left me alone. I didn’t even see where they disappeared to. I reached the clearing where a stage had been built. They had hoisted bamboo pillars with red and blue ribbons and had constructed chandeliers inside. The place was surrounded by ropes and obviously decorated for important folks to sit near the front of the stage. There were no arrangements for the masses, though, who were expected to sit beyond the well-lit space.
I had been to Rajganj a few times with my father. But nobody knew me there and I didn’t know anybody either. So I sat outside with the crowd. Nobody welcomed us and the managers of the show chased us away more than once. They were so concerned with the special guests, who were all government officials and local businessmen, that the rest of the audience was virtually ignored. In the end, I found a place in a corner from where I could watch the show.
The jatra began. It was the story of King Nol and his wife Damayanti. Jadu Hajra walked on to the stage as King Nol. People did not clap in those days. They chanted the name Hari and the entire place went quiet at the name of a god. The audience waited expectantly.
I had not heard of Jadu Hajra till then and kept staring at him in utter astonishment. He was dark and handsome. I could not, however, guess his age. He could have been anything between thirty to fifty years. But his speech, the way he spoke and looked—well, I had never seen anything like that before. I forgot about my tussle in the crowd, or even the fact that I was famished. I kept on staring at the five gods who had appeared at the swayamvar ceremony of Damayanti, Nol’s bride-to-be. Jadu Hajra was in the guise of Nol. He was looking at his surroundings and was perplexed by the appearances of the gods:
“Who are these people I see around me?
How come these people resemble me?
Not only do they dress like me
They even look like me;
Must be some kind of sorcery—
God of my heart, tear away this magic-web
Grant me my wish.”
Then Damayanti entered the hall with a garland in hand for her future bridegroom.
Nol called out:
“Damayanti, Damayanti, remember the missive
Of the swans? Here I am, King Nol
I wait by the pillar—“
Immediately, the four gods in disguise mimicked him uttering the very same words. The real Nol had a dumbfounded look on his face.
Then at one point, the sufferings of King Nol began. He was roaming from one country to another; he went searching for his queen and lost kingdom. The performance was amazing. It was so many years ago, and I still have not forgotten it. Throughout the night I wept uncontrollably. The jatra was finally over around early dawn. But when I heard that it would continue the next night I decided to stay on. I ate at a nearby shop and spent the day strolling in the bazaar. That night the performance was on Shikhidhaj. People around me were saying that this was a very special performance by Jadu Hajra. And yes, the audience had gone crazy. He received four or five gold and silver medals for his performance that night. By the time the jatra ended, it was almost dawn. I slept awhile on a wooden bench and then went back to my village that morning by myself.
Several years passed. I grew older and went to attend a bigger school. Jadu Hajra was in his prime then. Wherever there was a jatra, Jadu Hajra’s name came up. Everybody agreed that there was no one like Jadu Hajra—he was unrivalled. But I did not get to see Jadu Hajra again for a long time. literature, football, debate club, newspaper—a world far away from the simple pleasures of my former life in the village. My mindset changed. There were also the rules of the boarding school to consider.
This is the time when I also came to learn a lot about the theatre. There was a theatre hall established by a group of lawyers in the town where I lived. There was a performance going on there on one occasion, I think, of Protapaditya. I was charmed by the plot and language. Jatra certainly lacked this kind of refinement. I started enjoying the theatrical performances, and when I went to attend a jatra again, I found that there was little to enjoy.
Then I moved to Kolkata. There were all sorts of new techniques and forms of acting to be seen in the city. I came to watch and appreciate the sophisticated performances of famous actors of the time. Western movies and renowned artists flooded my consciousness and I started to find Gurudas Ghosh, a prominent actor on the lawyers’ stage, to be childish and ridiculous.
Years rolled by and I was done with school. I became a full-time employee. I would rarely go to movies. My opinions about most famous artists had by then undergone many phases.
Around this time I went to visit the country and learnt that there would be a public jatra. A well-known jatra team had arrived and people were very excited. The team was being paid a hundred and fifty taka per night. Never before had such a jatra come to our village. You can probably guess that I was not at all interested in staying up all night to watch this jatra. Such days were long gone. I had no wish to sit in the warm weather among a crowd.
But my friends would not take no for an answer. The event managers also came with a special request that I must go. So finally, out of courtesy I went. I decided that I would sit for a while and then leave. It would look bad if I did not go at all.
The jatra started in the evening. After watching it for a while, I realised that a lot of things had changed. The initial duet and the prized violin players had disappeared. The embroidered dresses were gone too; the young actors imitated theatre acting. I even noticed that some of them actually copied famous actors I knew. The younger members of the audience applauded and exclaimed, “That’s fantastic! Look how that actor is copying so and so from Kolkata!”
At this point, a rather heavy-set, short and dark man entered the stage. I can’t remember what role he was playing. But he must have been over sixty, even if in good health. Nobody praised or clapped at his performance even though he did his best to please the audience. There were some younger boys sitting near me and one of them exclaimed, “Where did they get this old joker from? What a buffoon!”
An elderly gentleman close by said, “He was very well-known in his time. His name is Jadu Hajra.”
I stared at the gentleman and turned to take a good look at the old man on the stage. I recalled that day from my childhood—when I was left alone on a winter night by some good-for-nothing friends and was mesmerised by an amazing actor. This old man was Jadu Hajra? No way!
The audience used to be spellbound by his acting. And wasn’t he using the very same skills? Then what had changed? Why was the audience not pleased? On the contrary, they were being derisive.
I felt sad. I was even irritated with his performance. Why did I feel like this?
I still remember the actors I had seen in my childhood. The king Shikhidhaj had discovered his treacherous young wife with the commander-in-chief of his army on a tryst. He was speechless, but on a whim he told them, “Madhuchhanda, I made a mistake by marrying you at my old age. I still love you, so I won’t kill you. Leave me, both of you, but leave like lovers holding hands. And I never want to set eyes on you again.” Both of them were ashamed and terrified, and they hesitated holding hands in front of the King. The King took out his sword from its scabbard and said, “Go, or I’ll kill you both. Leave exactly as I command.”
So they were compelled to hold hands and walk away. The King gazed at them steadily and when they had gone some distance, he brandished his sword and ran after them with a heart-broken, piercing cry. They all left the stage. The expression on the King’s face and his cry held such anguish that it enthralled the audience. Even though I was just a boy, I too was moved and still remember it clearly to this day.
I went to meet Jadu Hajra the next day. He was sitting on a stool and smoking right outside where the actors were housed. I approached him and said, “I loved your performance last night.” It was far from the truth but the old man’s face brightened. It was obvious that he had not received accolades in a long time. While the younger actors were cheered the day before, he received only snide remarks.
The old man said, “You understand the old ways and so you liked my performance. Those days are gone now. These days they talk about art—I don’t even understand what that means. There was Bhrigu Sarkar and nobody could surpass his acting as Ravana. He taught me everything step by step. He blessed me before dying, ‘Jadu, if you can use the gift I have given you, you won’t have to worry about anything.’ I was under his tutelage, do you understand? I was his direct student.”
I asked, “Why do you still work?”
“What else can I do? My eldest son was a fine man. But he died of cholera about two years ago. I have to look after his family. My eldest granddaughter is to be married soon. I couldn’t save much from the money I made during my prime. I earned about one hundred and fifty taka as salary once upon a time—the proprietor of the jatra took special care of me then. And now I get only thirty- five taka. And that boy Shatish who acted as Rama gets eighty. Apparently, these young ones know what art is! Tell me, did you like his performance yesterday, or did you like mine? They are the ones that the proprietors like while I have to worry if I can continue working at all.
I realised that Jadu Hajra had lived beyond his time. How could I tell him that times have changed? What was cheered and praised forty years ago would not be appreciated by the modern day audience. The art and eloquence taught by Bhrigu Sarkar would seem ridiculous today.
About five or six years after this encounter I was passing by a narrow lane in Nebutala when I saw Jadu Hajra sitting at a spice shop. His shabby appearance told me that he had hit rock-bottom. He wore a grubby dhoti and a half-torn shirt. He did not recognise me, of course. In my attempt to please the old man, I said,
“You may not know me, but I certainly do. You cannot hide fire under ashes; everybody knows who you are. Do you live in Kolkata these days?”
The old man had tears in his eyes as he said, “Ah, Sir, our days have ended. See, I don’t even have a proper job. No jatra party will have me. They say, ‘You’ve grown old, Mr Hajra. You can’t possibly work now.’ The thing is, nobody wants us these days. The good, old days are all gone. It’s an age of anarchy.”
I tried to pacify the heart-broken old man with sweet words. I learnt that the spice shop was his sanctuary. Some kind- hearted people let him have lunch at their place and he slept in the shop at night. The owner of the shop was an acquaintance of his.
I frequented the lane every day and often chatted with Jadu Hajra on my way home. One day the old man told me, “Sir, could you do me a favour? Would you treat me to mutton one of these days?”
I took him to a quality restaurant and ordered a full course meal. I could see from the way he ate that he had not had a square meal in a while. Afterwards, we went to a nearby park to chat. It was nine in the evening. It was winter and there were not many people around. The old man reminisced about his glorious youth when he had been awarded medals, when girls would fall in love with him right and left, and when a local king had gifted him the expensive shawl he was wearing.
While speaking, Jadu Hajra often became unmindful. I remained quiet for some time too and then said, “I still remember your performance as Shikhidhaj, especially where the King ordered the young couple to leave together hand in hand.”
The elderly actor sat up straight—his face and eyes glowed with the light of his youth. He said, “Oh yes, it was such a long time ago, wasn’t it? I played that role when I worked with Proshonno Niyogee. Would you like to watch it again?”
I too, felt alive and asked, “You remember the lines? I would love to watch that again.”
Fortunately, not too many people were in the park at that time. The old man stood up and I became Madhuchhanda. He started reciting his part and I could see that he had forgotten nothing. At one point, he turned towards me and spoke in that dramatic and momentous voice, “Go, Madhuchhanda. Both of you leave as the lovers that you are…” As I took a few steps forward, he ran after me like a madman. What an amazing performance that was—the way he spoke and expressed himself! The old actor with a broken heart poured the tragic story of his life into that late-night performance. It seemed as if he truly was old King Shikhidhaj whose faithless young wife had jilted him for a young lover. For a few moments, the elderly performer outshone even the famed actor he was in his youth.
This was the last performance of Jadu Hajra. About a month later, when I went to look for him at the spice shop, I heard that he had passed away.