Bahurupi: The Art of Disguise in Indian Folk Culture

Bahurupi is a term that refers to the wandering folk performers who portray several hundred characters, mostly mythological in nature, such as Lord Shiva, Lord Krishna, Goddess Durga, or Hanuman. They are street performers who assume disguises to entertain rural masses and earn their livelihood. They wear glittering, eye-catching costumes and adorn their faces with elaborate make-up. They also use props, masks, and accessories to enhance their appearance and performance. They wander from village to village to perform and in return get contributions from the audience.

The word Bahurupi comes from Sanskrit words Bahu (many) and Rupa (form), meaning one who changes their form often. The art of Bahurupi is considered to be one of the oldest forms of social entertainment in India. It has its roots in ancient times when bahurupis acted as spies for kings and used their skills of disguise to gather information or infiltrate enemy camps. The word is popular as Bahurupi in Bengal as an art form. 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.

Photo by Soumya Bandhopadhyay

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.

Photo courtesy: Firstpost

Bahurupi is a dying folk culture that is facing many challenges in the modern times. The advent of mass media, urbanization, and lack of patronage have reduced the demand and scope for bahurupis. Many of them have switched to other professions or migrated to cities in search of better opportunities. The younger generation is not interested in learning or continuing this art form. Moreover, the bahurupis face social stigma and discrimination as they are often considered to be low-caste or untouchable.

However, there are still some bahurupis who are trying to preserve and promote this art form. They participate in various festivals, fairs, and cultural events to showcase their talent and creativity. They also collaborate with other artists, such as theatre actors, dancers, musicians, or puppeteers, to create innovative and contemporary performances. Some of them have also formed associations or groups to support each other and raise awareness about their art form.

Bahurupi is a unique and fascinating art form that reflects the diversity and richness of Indian folk culture. It is a testament to the human ability to transform and adapt to different situations and roles. It is also a medium of expression and communication that connects the performer with the audience and creates a sense of joy and wonder.

17 thoughts on “Bahurupi: The Art of Disguise in Indian Folk Culture

  1. It is not just the performing folk art but even theatre (drama) is dying too with dwindling audience.
    These days people are short of time and even very short patience for live performance (except at a gig show with the mandatory glass of wine).
    We are in the Instant Age‼️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sanchita Ghosh

    Nice post. I remember seeing Bahurupis in Delhi in my childhood. Yes, they are getting extinct now with the time and changing preferences and lifestyles.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Manojit

    Nice post. Sadly, this form of folk art is dying. In our childhood days we had seen bahurupies in the streets of Karol Bagh. They not only had to learn the art of make ups and costume designing, but a bit of acting too. No welfare schemes for them from Govt for survival.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mano. Yes, we used to see many Bahurupis in Sarojini Nagar where I was staying in my childhood before coming to Gole Market area. Sadly, these folk arts are being allowed to die. The Cultural departments of Central and state governments should sponsor and encourage these artists before they evaporate from the society.


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