When Monowara Begum (not real name) started acting in folk theatre, known as Jatra Pala, it was a world full of fantasy for her. Later when she earned fame through acting, she took it up as her profession.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown her out of her long-cherished profession. Being unable to organise any show since March, Monowara has since been working as a domestic help to maintain her family.
Like Monowara, other folk-theatre artistes in the Jatra Polli (residential area for the folk-theatre artists) in Satpai Rail Crossing area of Netrokona town have been passing their days in utter misery.
Most of them are doing odd jobs now, working as cooks, rickshaw pullers, masons, garment workers, barbers and so on. Some have taken loans from money lenders at high interest rates to run their families.
Netrokona is famous for the age-old art form (Jatra Shilpo). The folk theater artistes from across the country came to this district and settled there. More than 350 professional artistes live in the region. Of them, 120 are female. Apart from them, over 500 part-time artistes in the theatre.
Centring the folk-theatre, 12 to 13 dress houses used to do businesses at Satpai, Mohonganj and Kendua upazila. Musical instruments, instrument players, dancers, actors, actresses, dresses, electric equipment and other necessary things were supplied from the houses.
But soon after the pandemic arrived, the businesses stopped. The owners of the houses have lost their capital.
All types of gathering, including Jatra-Pala, have been restricted since March. Usually, since the seventh day of Durga Puja, the season of Jatra-Pala begins.
But this year, no Jatra troupe could stage any show due to Covid-19, said Din Islam, former general secretary of the district unit of Bangladesh Jatra-Shilpo Unnoyon Parishad.
There are four Jatra troupes namely Bondhon Opera, Jholmol Opera, Netro Kothon Natyo Gosthi and Krishna Opera. In each of the troupes, 40-50 people, including artistes, technicians, helpers and cooks, worked on a monthly salary basis.
Chandan Sarker of Satpai area played the roles of heroes in Jatra Pala. Now he sells rice at the market in the Rail Crossing area of Satpai.
Instrument players Porimol Sarker and Nidhu Das are now rickshaw pullers. Kajol Chandra Shil now works as a barber while Horichoron Das is running a tea stall.
A female artiste aged over 50 years said, "When I became unemployed I had to take some loans. So now I have to work as a cook in a students' mess. I never thought that I would ever need to do such work."
The Business Standard talked to several artistes, who said some artists, including Jhorna Goswami, Beena Rani Das, Boloram Sarker and Abdur Razzak, are very sick. They are suffering without treatment for lack of money.
The folk-theatre artists have not received any financial assistance amid the pandemic, claimed the artists.
Renowned artist Princess Beauty said, "Though the government has allocated sufficient assistance for artistes and cultural activists, it was not distributed properly at the field level."
Bhakto Das, former vice-president of the district unit of Bangladesh Jatra-Shilpo Unnoyon Parishad, said only 55 artistes got Tk1,000 each while 41 got Tk5,000 each from the government.
But most of those who were not on the list of the artistes were also needy, he said.
Abdullah Al Mamun, cultural officer at the district Shilpakala Academy, said, "I know about the miseries of the folk theatre artistes. Shilpakala Academy and the district administration tried to stand beside those who contacted us or about whom we came to know. Another list has been sent to the higher authorities for providing them with incentives. On the list, names of several folke theatre artists have been included."
The artistes said winter is the perfect season for Jatra-Pala. Every year, month-long or fortnight-long shows are arranged in different parts of the country during winter. They had to pass a very busy time during the season. But this year, due to the pandemic, no Jaytra Pala has been arranged anywhere.