With a face painted in black, a glittering crown sitting pretty on faux long curly hair and a short, thick neck embellished with a garland of palm-sized skulls and heads was a man in black robes merrily munching on mirchi wada.
I met Vikas Singh in a parking lot at Jodhpur, a jovial 30-year-old ‘Behrupiya’.
Dressed to impersonate Goddess Kali, he quickly kept his half-eaten popular Rajasthani snack aside and raised a palm to strike a pose like that of a goddess blessing her devotees.
Belonging to the street performer community of Rajasthan that was traditionally engaged in this art, Vikas, however, didn’t involve himself in it very seriously. His not-so-perfect disguise and an ear-to-ear grin told me that he was in this for easy money.
The Earliest Stories of the Behrupiyas...
Behrupiyas, their name derived from ‘bahu-roop’ or ‘many forms’ in Sanskrit, were the original entertainers on streets and in the courts of kings. They would don different disguises to perform various roles – ranging from despicable beggars to revered Hindu gods.
The earliest stories regarding the use of disguise and impersonation can probably be traced back to texts of the epic Mahabharata. In one such story, the Pandavas – after their defeat in a game of dice with Kaurava prince Duryodhan – had to agree to 12 years of forest life and one year of ‘agyatvas’ or living without being identified, thus forcing them to disguise themselves for a year.
All princes disguised themselves to take up a role that best suited them. Arjun, for instance, disguised himself as a eunuch and joined the court of King Virat as an entertainer and a dance teacher.
While festivals and religious occasions called for behrupiyas to disguise themselves as deities, in the course of everyday disguises they would play the role of a jester – also called ‘maskhara’ or ‘naqqal’: the imitator for unadulterated fun and tease performances in village ‘chaupals’ and royal courts.
The ‘Bhand’ community from Uttar Pradesh – once respected for their craft – were the official court entertainers for the Nawab of Awadh.
Such was their expertise in changing their appearance, that many a times these folk entertainers were entrusted with spying assignments by the kings. The impersonator transformed himself into a new character every day and eluded being caught with the sheer ability to blend in and fool people with his disguise.
For the everyday entertainer, it was a common practice to appear unannounced at wedding ceremonies and other events disguised as law enforcers, ‘khajanchi’ or money lender and hermits. They would then proceed to create a ruckus and fool the crowd. The high point of such performances was the reward or ‘bakshis’.
There was an unwritten understanding between the artists and the unsuspecting audience that if their mimicry or impersonation failed to convince, the behrupiyas would not claim a reward. A perfect act, however, called for a generous reward from the crowd or the village and family head.
A Dwindling Art
But the irony is, that the communities no longer practise this art because of meagre earnings and the disrespect meted out by society. The changing sensibilities of society and increased means of entertainment also gradually made people shy away from these performers. The means to livelihood decreased and the performers either gave up on the art or resorted to begging in garish make-up.
I once saw a lean young boy with an orange face (possibly playing the ‘vanar’ god Hanuman) outside a temple in Nainital – he had the most sullen expression I had ever seen. His palm was spread out to beg and he wasn’t the least bit interested in any conversations I tried to initiate. A ten-rupee note that I sought to offer didn’t change his mind. He soon moved on to other devotees queuing up at the temple.
I met another father-son duo in the streets of Thanjavur. The son, a teenager, had a face painted blue, a crown with long hair sprouting from it and lips that had been painted a bright red. He was dressed as Lord Rama.
The father, deftly pushing the keys of a melodeon slung on his shoulders, sang a ‘bhajan’ extolling the Prince of Ayodhya – while the son stood with a raised palm to bless whoever cared to stop and give alms. Barefoot, the pair had to, time and again, stand in scorching heat. The father sang at the top of his voice above the din of air coolers to attract people from behind the closed doors.
The pair had travelled all the way from West Bengal for the festive season of Dussehra. Once a year, the father and son travelled to different cities across the country and returned home with some money to continue practising their craft in the streets of their hometown. The father, Bipin, had trained himself to sing in Tamil, Bengali and Hindi.
Trying hard to make both ends meet, Bipin still wanted to continue practising the traditions that had been taught him, but the young boy shyly admitted his reluctance. He was more interested – he said – in watching films with modern day ‘nat’ aka actors singing and dancing on celluloid.
As I offered a token sum of a hundred rupees for a song and a photograph, I casually asked the young lad what he would like to do with the money. The father answered, before the boy could muster up the courage, that they needed the money for food back home. (The young boy murmured an almost inaudible “ice-cream from a big shop” only to be reprimanded in their native tongue by the father.)
The Many Masks of Today
But unlike Bipin, most performers who still try their hand at their traditional art in festive celebrations and in religious processions, do not want their children to adopt the uncertain lifestyle. They prefer working as daily wage labourers and educating their children instead.
The fate of this dwindling art is almost sealed. “Abhi sab mukhota pehente hain, sab behrupiya hain” (Everybody wears a disguise nowadays, every person is an impersonator) – Bipin’s parting shot, as he collected a hundred rupees from me, left me thinking.
Indeed, in a world where we hide behind numerous masks to fool, cheat and wriggle our way out of responsibilities, the simple behrupiya hardly stands a chance.
(Shoma Abhyankar is a travel writer and blogger based in Pune. She tweets at @throbbingmind)