A catholic group enacts a traditional folk drama on Jesus’ sufferings, death and resurrection
The faithful in the Bhawal region of Bangladesh’s largest Catholic territory, Dhaka archdiocese, have been performing very special drama and Lenten songs for nearly 100 years.
Bhawal region covers six pre-dominantly Bengali parishes: Nagari, Toomiliah, Rangamatia, Mathbari, Mausaid and Dharenda, and has some distinct cultural traditions.
During Lent, devotional performances of Koshter Gaan
(Songs of Sorrow) and Jisu Nila
(a musical folk drama on Jesus’ life) are very common in these parishes.
Both the songs and drama originate from Chorakhola, a village in the region’s largest parish Toomiliah. A Catholic teacher called Dominic Rozario (popularly known as Domingo Pundit), wrote the lyrics for the drama and the Songs of Sorrow nearly 100 years ago.
An unidentified local Hindu musician composed the tunes to the verses, local Catholics say. The tone is believed to be taken from a traditional folk drama on the life of the Hindu deity Lord Krishna.
During lent each year, a group of 10-15 singers is invited to go to village homes in the evenings to give performances. Usually a rosary prayer is recited before the singing begins.
There are six songs in their repertoire and each song has a distinct melody and takes about 10 minutes to perform.
The group usually sings three songs in each home they are invited into and by doing so they “try to encourage Christians to confess and come back to God.”
Two of the songs are about Jesus being taken away from the garden of Gethsemane and His conversation with the two criminals crucified with Him “to help villagers understand Jesus’ suffering.”
The other songs focus on Mary’s suffering, including one where she weeps as she holds the body of her son in her arms.
When performing the songs, the leader and his assistant sing each line first, and the rest of the group repeats the line.
After the singing is over the host family usually serves tea and muri
(parched rice). Some families also give some money to the group, which is set aside until the end of Lent, when some is given to the parish as a stipend for Masses for peace and the well-being of villagers. Any money left over goes towards a small celebration at Easter.
When performing the play, the songs are not accompanied by musical instruments to keep the austere mood of Lent, but incidental music is a feature of the play to create a dramatic atmosphere. Traditional costumes and make-up are also distinct features.
The play is usually performed by a group in a bigger house with the audience sitting round a bare stage on which performers depict Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.
The original drama used to be six-hours long. A few years back it was cut to four-hours and renamed Muktidata Jisu
(Jesus the Savior).
Villagers invite the group to perform the play as a way to ask favors from God.
Performers don’t get paid for acting, but the people issuing the invitation pays in advance for the costumes, make-up and to pay hired musicians.
The play is often an interreligious performance with Christian actors and readers, Hindu musicians and Muslims doing the make-up and decorations. Often Hindus and Muslims are members of the audience.
However, this once popular devotional tradition, maybe under threat as a result of globalization, modern media as well as a lack of interest from the younger generation.
“Lenten traditions are excellent ways to preach the Good News. They should be practiced properly and regularly. The Church needs to preserve them because they are very important”, said Father Alfred Gomes, 65, assistant pastor of Nagari parish.
Hemanto Gomes, 47, a Catholic banker agreed.
“It is vitally important for outstanding village traditions that are nearly one hundred years old to be kept in this inconsistent world. It would be really painful if these traditions were lost due to an unwillingness to preserve them.”
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