As forward strides in technology give birth to sleeker and newer gadgets of entertainment, we pause to take a look at the fate of the humble bioscope

Yesteryear entertainers, who fascinated many a child and adult with the unique cinematic treat of the bioscope accompanied by music, are coping with a future which has little space for them.

With television, multiplexes, internet, DVD, mobile phones and other sources of entertainment overshadowing the bioscope, endurance for practitioners of the trade is becoming a tough bargain.

What used to be considered a favourite pass time for children earlier, the bioscope has now retreated from the main thoroughfares of the city to remote villages. In the Capital, one may occasionally spot a bioscope at public venues such as the India Gate, Dilli Haat or Pragati Maidan.

Hope of earning a better income has forced bioscope- wallah's to move to distinct places outside Delhi. An illegal settlement in an impoverished northern pocket of the city -- Kathputli Colony -- keeps this vanishing culture alive. It is a tinsel slum where about 800 families have settled here since Independence. Over 600 artists from here have represented India in several fairs and festivals abroad. Of these, only few households now possess a bioscope, while the practitioners' headcount is thinner still.

The bioscope, however, sustained many a family for decades. Take the case of Jagdish, a practitioner from the colony. His grandfather and father were completely dependent on the bioscope for a living. But soon it ceased to be a profitable venture and the family was reduced to dismal poverty. “There was virtually no income from the shows. People now prefer to sit on their couches and watch television rather than come out and enjoy the bioscope,” rues Jagdish.

With only a meagre sum coming from the trade, Jagdish has to work as a driver to scrape out a some what better living. The machine that he still owns, serves as a source of side-business now.

“Those times were easy when a bioscope used to feed an entire household. Things were cheaper then. My father's daily earnings, which were not more than a few pennies, fed us well,” he says.

Another bioscope-wallah Bhanwar Lal had to move out of Delhi in search of a better living. “Earlier it used to be a booming business but now to make a living out of it is a distant dream. During festivals or when fairs are held at Surajkund and Pinjore Garden, people throng to these places. There is a slight increase in income but the fear of penury still looms large,” he says.

And what happens during the off-seasons?

“When there is no festival season or fair we go to nearby villages of Delhi where we get a good audience, but there is now a financial crunch,” says Sohan Lal, a resident of Kathputli Colony.

Putting up stalls at the government regulated Dilli Haat is also not easy and turns out to be an expensive affair. For a 15-day contract, one needs to pay around Rs.4,000, with little or no profitable returns to look forward to.

A few bioscope-wallahs are adding innovations to the bioscope to keep its bygone charms afloat. A sound system can be fitted, but it is an expensive deal. The price is Rs.10,000 and maintenance can cost between Rs.500 and Rs. 1500. The returns — Rs. 100 to Rs. 150 if business is good andRs.400 to Rs. 500 during fairs — are not in tandem with the investments, note bioscope-wallahs.

The concept of the bioscope, however, is still fascinating – a hand-driven projector with a low-watt bulb is placed behind the reel. As the handle is turned, the reel moves. A person peeping through a fixed lens gets to experience a wonderful cinematic treat accompanied by music.

Its history too is fascinating. The first bioscope was brought to Calcutta in 1896. A resident, Hira Lal Sen acquired necessary equipment and started bioscope shows at the Minerva, Star and Classic Theatres.

In April, 1898, Hira Lal along with his family Matilal Sen, Deboki Lal Sen and Bholanath Gupta established 'The Royal Bioscope Company' in Calcutta. The company organised bioscope shows in Calcutta, Bhola, Manikganj, Joydevpur and other parts of Bengal, Bihar and Assam and in March of 1911 exhibited shows at Ahsan Manzil in Dhaka.

That was the beginning of a marvellous journey that entertained many a generation. Technology today may lead to its inevitable decline if care is not taken to preserve the bioscope tradition.