Saturday, March 8, 2008

Many faces of the bahurupi

He is a performer par excellence. He can switch roles at the drop of a hat. He wanders from village to village to eke out a living by entertaining at fairs. Shoma A. Chatterji traces the journey of the bahurupi, whose very existence is under threat today

The bahurupis entertain by enacting roles of mythological figures
The bahurupis entertain by enacting roles of mythological figures — Photo by Reuters

Cinebuffs who watched Shreyas Talpade’s marvellous performance as the kind-hearted and lovable bahurupi-turned-conman in Nagesh Kukunoor’s film Dor were actually looking at an underplayed subtext of the film – the decline and decay of the bahurupiya of Rajasthan. Ritwik Ghatak made a detailed reference to the bahurupi in his film, Subarnarekha (1965).

In West Bengal, he is called the bahurupi. One day, he is dressed up like a mythological god or goddess. The next day, he shifts his disguise to become a village housewife. The third day, he wears the get-up of a tiger or lion. On the final day of any village fair in West Bengal, he turns into a comical village school teacher, his hair parted down the middle, wearing black-framed glasses, carrying his umbrella like a walking stick and attired in kurta and dhoti.`A0He is a bahurupi — the many-faced artiste-actor who performs in public spaces like village fairs. This is his way of living. He accepts money, clothes and food, anything that a willing viewer is able to shell out. But he does not beg. It is a strange way of living by masquerade as a necessity. It is also the only way of perpetuating the lost art of performance of the bahurupis.

Children of the itinerant bahurupis have little access to formal education
Children of the itinerant bahurupis have little access to formal education — Photo by Reuters

Multiple roles

For most performances, there is a story structured into the persona of the performer himself within his make-up, costume and role. Thus, he must master not only the art of make-up and costume but also dancing, jumping, climbing walls and fences, acting, physical acrobatics, self-defence strategies and so on.`A0 He must master the art of changing, flexing and modulating his voice within split seconds.

In the ardh-narishwara performance, he enacts the dual role of the purush (man) and the nari (woman) with his facial make-up split vertically down the middle. One side shows the masculine face and the other side the feminine. He must have command over the diction and the accent the character demands. He should also be able to produce animal sounds such as the tiger’s roar or the barking of a dog. He must also know how to compose music, write lyrics and sing. Thus, every bahurupi performance is a one-man show from beginning to end.

Some bahurupis performed so well that children would get frightened by their act. Earlier, parents would rebuke kids for fearing what were disguises and not the real thing. Today, parents do not like the bahurupi to frighten their kids, so the bahurupi has changed the pattern and structure of his script.

Altered act

In West Bengal, bahurupis have been around for the past 150 years
In West Bengal, bahurupis have been around for the past 150 years

Deft at the art of make-up
Deft at the art of make-up
— Photos by Bijoy Choudhury

Most disguises are structured to inform, educate and entertain. With changes in both audience and sponsor expectations, some performers have scripted their performances to spread messages such as promotion of literacy, importance of family planning and so on. The bahurupi’s audience is as varied, fluid and flexible as the bahurupi himself. This is perhaps, the only known folk performance where the performer does not have a fixed platform or village or place. He wanders from one village to another to perform at fairs and add meaning to his impoverished life.

His costume box has all kinds of odds and ends such as wigs, trident, axe, bow and arrow, sword, dagger, knife, toy rifles, guns, sticks, a set of eight false arms, a set of two false arms, a set of eight heads crafted out of paste board, a set of two imitation heads, a human skull shaped out of old cloth, sudarshan chakra, flute, bucket, doll, rubber snake, drums, tiger mask, hanuman mask, bear mask and a lion`A0mask. For his make-up, the bahurupi uses ingredients like zinc oxide, vaseline, coconut oil, vermilion powder and alaktaka liquid. But he has to take care not to use poor-quality stuff that could harm his skin.

The bahurupi borrows stories from epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata; folk tales of gods and goddesses in disguise; concocted tales about animals and birds; stories built around common characters like a doctor, clerk, an old woman, etc; informative and inspirational stories about personalities like Mother Teresa, Charlie Chaplin, Indira Gandhi, and tales with twin characters where the bahurupi performs both the roles himself.

Social relevance

Bahurupis still function in West Bengal in and around the districts of Birbhum, Burdwan, Murshidabad, Hooghly, Medinipur and Nadia. It is not a hereditary tradition. Most bahurupis are actors who have stepped into this profession from the jatra — folk form of drama.

The perspective of making a specific presentation or wearing a specific disguise differs from one bahurupi to the other, depending on which district he belongs to. Besides the aesthetic and cultural relevance of the bahurupi, historical documents tracing folk art performances underscore the social relevance of the bahurupi. He is socially relevant because, when people in remote villages had no access to cinema, theatre and television, he offered the rare avenue of entertainment and amusement through fantasy, mythology and performance. Bahurupi performances in West Bengal go back to 150 years. There are, however, very few women in the profession.

Source of livelihood

There was a time when the bahurupi performed throughout the year, going from door to door in search of his audience. His mainstay was what he could collect from them on a day-to-day basis. Without having to ask, the mistress of the house would offer him gifts in kind such as rice, pulses, vegetables, fruits, sweets and condiments. This was never thought of as beggary or charity and was given as the price of the performance.

Today, a bahurupi almost forces a performance on an unwilling audience and then accepts whatever is given. He keeps quiet if there is nothing forthcoming. When the village fair folds up with the monsoon, a bahurupi looks for alternate ways of livelihood. He may crack bee combs to make honey. Sometimes, he kills and sells birds. Another way is to catch and kill bats to make country medicine for fevers and other ailments. Some pull rickshaws, some work on farms as day-labourers, and those who are literate, work as accountants in grocer’s shops. A few who can sing well turn into kirtaniyans, singing kirtans early in the morning from door to door.

The bahurupis have been a deprived lot with no help from the government. They lack basic necessities of life, including education and healthcare. To mitigate their sufferings, the West Bengal Government announced the launch of an "integrated" development project for the Bahurupis of Birbhum in 2003. A 13-acre plot of land at Gopalpur halt in Sekhampur mouza near Labpur was earmarked to rehabilitate them.

As a first step, a residential complex was planned for them. "After building the residences of these bahurupis, a primary school, a health centre, a playground will be constructed in that area to bring the bahurupis and their children into the mainstream," said Arun Choudhury, advisory board member of the backward class welfare department. "The chief constraint in undertaking development projects for the bahurupis is that they lead a nomadic life. Since they do not remain confined to a particular place, their children have little access to proper education and healthcare. The main object of this project is to rehabilitate them in a particular area then take up other development projects," he summed up. There has however been little progress on the project till date.

Bahurupi is a performer par excellence who can switch roles, voice, appearance and characters at the drop of a hat and he does this proudly. His pretending to be someone else is entertaining, creative, temporary and fluid. His disguises arise from the need to make a living characterised by a certain ambiguity about the self. It is a way of life, a calling, a means of subsistence in a world where folk performing arts such as the nachni and the khemta (of West Bengal) are being pushed to extinction.

Folk artistes

THE term bahurupi is derived from the Sanskrit bahu (many) and rupa (form). Bahurupis in Bengal are a group of folk performers who portray several hundred characters, from gods to lepers to animals and demons, doctors and engineers, children and birds, holy men, professional men and tribals, tradesmen and rogues, beggars and fools. As one who assumes several forms and playfully takes on different identities, he is aided by the fact that in West Bengal, a great deal about a person’s occupation, expected behaviour, social standing and speech patterns can be predicted by the clothing he or she wears. His costume is known as vesha.