Indian Catholic News

Popular Lenten play in Bangladesh beset by adversity

Priests praise folksy evangelization through art but troupe fears tradition will die unless parishes offer support.

 
An actor plays the role of Pontius Pilate in Jishu Nila, a popular Lenten folk play held at the school grounds of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Tejgaon, Dhaka, in this March 24, 2017 file photo. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Dhaka: 

On the first Friday of Lent, hundreds of ethnic Garo Catholics gathered to watch a five-hour play about the life of Jesus at a church in northern Bangladesh.

The troupe has performed Jishu Nila, about the teachings, tribulations and death of Christ, in villages and cities around the country for several decades each March with the tacit backing of the Church.

However, they fear this form of artistic evangelization may soon perish unless parishes help cover their costs by setting up a fund to support the actors, who are all unpaid.

"We stage six or seven shows every Lent. This year we've already done one and we've got three more booked. Our members sacrifice their time and energy to keep this popular tradition alive," troupe leader Pronoy John Rebeiro told ucanews.com.

"For us it is a kind of spiritual solace that we can preach the Good News through our art. But it's a challenge as we don't have any sponsors, so we never have time to rehearse," said the 47-year-old, who has a full-time job as an accountant in Dhaka.

"If we want to keep this tradition alive in the years to come, we need to create a fund run it," said Pronoy, who inherited the tradition from his father, and he in turn from his father.

"So far we've been continuing it independently and voluntarily, but I think a church authority should support us so it can be performed in parishes and to ensure it has a future."

None of the actors are professionally trained or receive a salary, and the troupe effectively performs for free, only asking its hosts to cover food, board, and travel expenses.

Holy Cross Father Eugene Anjus, secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Commission for Liturgy and Prayer, admitted the Church has failed to provide funding or support.

However, the play is seen as an "asset" and the Church encourages popular forms of devotion, he said.

"Jishu Nila and those musicals dedicated to saints are assets for us," he said. "They go side by side with official liturgy, supplement it and preach the Good News. We appreciate how this tradition has emerged from people's faith," he added.

"There was talk of recording them years ago but I don't know of any specific plan to preserve or promote this play. It seems the time has come to consider this seriously, and try to get the Church involved so we can sustain the play and even improve it if necessary," the priest said.

Keeping Catholics connected

At the church in Borodol village, Netrokona district, large groups of indigenous Garo Catholics watched about 50 performers enact the story of Creation, the fall of Adam and Eve, and other Biblical stories on March 8.

The play, underscored by emotive dialogue and music, culminates in the life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

It was the first time it had ever been performed in Mymensingh Diocese.

The troupe, which hails from Chorakhola village in central Gazipur district, traveled for hours at the invitation of a local Catholic in Borodol to perform.

They have been treating audiences to this traditional folk play for decades, ever since a local Catholic teacher-catechist, Peter Dominic Rozario, penned it along with 17 other religious folk plays and devotional songs in the 1940s.

For decades, the group has performed in eight Catholic parishes in the Bhawal region of Dhaka Archdiocese, a Catholic stronghold where the play remains popular among Christians and non-Christians, especially during Lent.

In recent years, it has soared in popularity, with performances also staged in Dhaka. Church and school grounds serve as the venue in cities, while villagers usually watch it from the yard of a large house or an open field.

At other times of the year, the troupe gets requests from Catholics to perform as a kind of manot, or a gift for fulfilling a wish to God.

Alternative to seminary life

Prodip Vincent Rebeiro, 55, a Catholic schoolteacher in Dhaka who was born in Chorakhola village, has been involved since 1986.

"When I was student, I wanted to become a priest but I left seminary life after I graduated. I wondered how I could preach the Good News, and I found I could do it by performing in the play, which I have been doing all these years," Prodip told ucanews.com.

Prodip used to play an anonymous Roman soldier before being "promoted" to the role of Pontius Pilate, who served as governor during Jesus' crucifixion.

"I was so much into the play, I felt sad to hit or slap Jesus. I did it only once. While playing Pilate, I feel guilty when I wash my hands, leaving Jesus in the hands of Jews. I feel sorry and I ask forgiveness from Jesus after the play is over," he said.

Prodip said his son and daughter support his involvement with the group.

"We rehearse at weekends and whenever else we are free. My family is very positive about it. They think it's a great way to evangelize," he said.

"If I was financially solvent, I would quit my job and do this all year."

Christians make up less than half a percent of Muslim-majority Bangladesh's population of 160 million. Most of the country's 600,000 Christians are Catholics.

Source: UCAN

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