Bahurupis are wandering folk performers who portray several hundred characters who are mostly mythological in nature like Lord Shiva or Lord Krishna. They are street performers who assume disguises to entertain rural masses. They wear glittering, eye-catching costumes of mostly Hindu gods and goddesses and adorn their faces with elaborate make-up. They wander from village to village to perform and in return get contributions from the audience.
Bahurupa, Bahu (many) and Rupa (form) are Sanskrit words, closer to the English word Chameleon, which means one who changes its colours or textures often. The word is popular as Bahurupi in Bengal as an art form. Among the oldest performers of social entertainment in India, bahurupis, who are experts in disguise, often acted as spies for kings. It is considered one of the ancient professions. The references of bahurupi can be traced back to Jataka tales (circa 4th century BCE).
They generally belong to the ‘bediya’ (byadh) tribe whose primary profession was hunting in earlier times. They used to trap birds with nets and sell them in the local markets. After the enactment of the forest laws, the bediyas were forced to abandon the forests adjoining Mayurakshi River. They took up alternative professions as snake charmers, monkey charmers, herbal medicine sellers etc.
For most performances, there is a story structured into the persona of the performer himself within his make-up, costume and role. The bahurupis usually dress up as mythological characters such as Lord Shiva, Lord Rama, the demon king Ravana, Radha and Lord Krishna, goddess Kali, Ardhanarishwar, Lord Hanuman, witches, and djinns. Dressing up as animals, such as tigers and monkeys, is common too.
Their art form now has a cultural identity; it is not merely a means of livelihood. Yet, the social status of these artists remains precarious. The bahurupis are witty and streetwise. They entertain their audience in various ways — frightening, teasing or chasing them around, or performing a mock fight. The audience applauds and appreciate their sense of humour and unpredictable behaviour.
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.
My first encounter with a bahurupi happened through an immensely popular Bengali literary work titled Srikanta by ‘Katha shilpi’ Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. I still remember how my younger self was extremely amused by the brief appearance of Chhinath (Srinath) bahurupi, who had dressed up as a tiger and created a ruckus in the quiet household of the eponymous protagonist of the novel. Somehow, the character stayed in my mind and eventually became a cultural marker of the golden age of Bengali literature that we look back on with a sense of fondness and pride.
“বেশ করিয়া দেখিয়া ইন্দ্র কহিল, দ্বারিকবাবু এ বাঘ নয় বোধহয়। তাহার কথাটা শেষ হইতে না হইতে সেই রয়্যাল বেঙ্গল টাইগার দুই হাত জোর করিয়া মানুষের গলায় কাঁদিয়া উঠিল, পরিষ্কার বাংলা করিয়া কহিল, না বাবুমশায় না, আমি বাঘ ভালুক নই। ছিনাথ বহুরূপী।”শরৎচন্দ্র চট্টোপাধ্যায়
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 kinds 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.
This once-popular folk art form is now vanishing in rural Bengal. Its practitioners have for generations earned modest amounts from their performances. But because audiences now increasingly prefer other forms of entertainment, the younger generations from Bahurupi families are being forced out of the profession.
Newer forms of entertainment such as television, cinema and the internet have encroached heavily upon the traditional folk-art forms. Globalization, urbanization, and modernization have rendered their art ‘obsolete’.
Without the younger generation engaging in the profession, the future of the bahurupi performance is endangered. The community urgently needs support to ensure that the rich bahurupi culture continues.