As I enter the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts in Connaught Place, I notice a couple of demons from Medieval India, sitting on the lawn grounds taking selfies. Dacoits, gods, bears and other characters are moving around which took me back to the folklores I was introduced to as a child.
Suddenly, I hear a booming voice right behind me and notice a small crowd has gathered around a genie, like the one we would see in Arabian Nights. While the genie breaks into a menacing laugh, to my left I spot Raavan chatting cheerfully with a circus clown.
Raavan loves being on camera.
To my right a langur that is jumping around puts on his sunglasses. He goes by the name of Shahrukh Khan, sporting a pair of sunglasses and jumps around, scaring a bunch of women. But, they find his company quite amusing and want him to scare them again with his antics.
The rakshasas, genie and monkey man are all behrupiyas, who have gathered at the National Behrupiya Festival organised at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, from October 5-8, 2018.
The word behrupiya is a derivative of the Sanskrit word bahu (many) and roop (form). Behrupiyas are impersonators, mostly known to perform in villages and markets all over India. Currently, they are increasingly seen in stage shows, festivals and functions.
The behrupiya festival takes place every year in a different locations- Delhi, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Jaipur, Kumbh, Muzaffarnagar and others.
Gods and demons seemed to get along pretty well at this gathering.
I strike up a conversation with 55-year-old Dawood Khan from Jaipur, who is dressed as Akbar, and ask him if the Mughal emperor is the only character he portrays.
“I can play so many characters that they would outnumber the hairs on my head. Djinn, Kroor Singh, a mad man, police inspector, Lord Vishnu and Lord Hanuman are some of these. Out of all the gods in India, I can play at least a fourth of them, kyunki bhagwaan ka dusra naam hi behrupiya hai. It was during the Mahabharta that Sri Krishna took many shapes and forms. Even Vishnu killed many rakshasas by changing his form,” he says.
Dawood started performing from the age of six, and his father, grandfather, all have been behrupiyas for several centuries. During that era behrupiyas would act as spies, changing their look, helping kings in defeating their rivals.
“Theatre, plays, natak and Bollywood- all of these came into being because of the behrupiya,” Dawood says, as he walks off to talk to some of Akbar’s admirers.
As I leave Akbar’s company, I thought I should find out about the monkey man and his story. Delhi based Kishan behrupiya performs 10-12 times a month. Although he feels that there is enough work for him, he wants the Government of India to officially recognise the behrupiya craft.
As I am speaking with Kishan, Lord Ram, who had been strolling nearby starts to listen to our conversations. 25-year-old Chand is playing Lord Ram, and echoes the same sentiment, wanting the government to provide them with some sort of pension or funds.
But don’t they ever think of taking up some other profession which is economically comfortable?
“Hum anpad aadmi hai. Our parents didn’t have enough money or property or a job. This is what they did and this is what we do. For the last two years, our income has decreased due to the advent of the internet and YouTube. If people can watch Lord Ram, Lakshman or Hanuman’s story on the internet, why would they need us?” he says.
Teaching kids the tricks of the trade.
One peculiar thing that I noticed was the absence of women. Even the female characters were played by men. I ask Chand if it’s true, or just an occasional occurrence.
“For many generations, this domain has been limited to men in the family and the community. Even now, we do not want that women to be involved in this practice. For decades, the narrative and identity of behrupiyas have been the same and we will respect that for as long as we can,” explains Chand.
First Published: Oct 07, 2018 16:50 IST