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India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’

 
 

People from the Bahurupiya tribe have traditionally done street performances as their main occupation, using the art of impersonation — painting their bodies to fake their identities. However, with new means of entertainment catching on in urban India, this art form faces extinction.

“They are struggling to survive and some have adopted alternative means of livelihood. We need to spread awareness to save this from vanishing,” said Vilas Janve, who recently curated a three-day event in New Delhi, where 70 Bahurupiyas were invited from across the country to perform.

This art flourished mainly in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and West Bengal.

In English, Bahurupiyas are translated as “impersonators,” but they are much more than that. They are directors, script-dialogue writers, choreographers, musicians, and makeup artists who use satire, wit, humor, and banter – all in one.

“This is a narrative art, passed on from generation to generation, orally. My father taught me the nuances and I taught my sons the same,” said veteran artist Subrati, who is from the northern Rajasthan state. “And we never thought of doing anything else. This is our life, the sole mean of existence. As we roamed around throughout the year, we couldn’t send our children to school. They learned only to prepare colors and costumes, mythological stories, studying human behavior on the field. They did not study mathematics or science or literature in a classroom. So they practice the art, facing challenges of the modern times. Earlier, rulers loved the art and patronized it. Now it is for the government and society to decide whether the tradition survives or vanishes.”

Ironically, while the Bahurupiyas are finding it difficult to survive, others are embracing the art form. I met a cop, a banker, an educationist, a farmer, and a trader who had been practicing it as a hobby. But, as Subrati said, “They can put on make-up and costumes but that’s not all. Bahurupiyas internalize the character in their blood and soul, without which it is nothing but a fancy dress performance.”

Prabhat Singh is a journalist for StoriesAsia.

India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Bahurupiyas impersonating Radha and Lord Krishna entertain the audience. They belong to Kannada language speaking group of Bahurupiyas. The duo relaxing in background are not traditional Bahurupiyas but have been performing for almost 15 years. Standing and dressed up as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Vijay Shridhar Desai is a cop with the Goa police; Sadanand is a farmer.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Sikander Abbas from Ahmedabad posing as Gandhi, and Dinesh Rawal from Ujjain as Mangal Pandey. Sikander hails from a traditional Bahurupiya family but Dinesh is practicing this art as a hobby. He is a retired banker.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Pappu Khan playing as Ravana, a 10-headed demon king mentioned in the Indian epic Ramayana. He hails from Kotputli near Jaipur. “You need a strong body and heavy voice to play Ravana otherwise people will laugh at you. Carrying this head gear even during the break is mandatory as it takes a lot of time to fix it properly,” Pappu said.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Dawood Khan is a tradition Bahurupiya who hails from Jaipur, but he has developed skills beyond impersonation and prefers to call himself a magician of voice. And he proved it while playing as Shahanshah Akbar, a role played by legendary Prithavi Raj Kapoor in the film Mughal-e-Azam. Here, he puts on make-up to play as a Djinn.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Feroz, preparing to play as a Djinn, is being helped by Haneef from Gujrat, who had finished his makeup as Lord Shiva. They inherit this kind of camaraderie. Feroz hails from the town of Bandikui in Rajasthan and belongs to a family of traditional Bahurupiya. His father Subrati has earned fame as Shivraj Bahurupiya and is a reputed figure amongst the artist fraternity. All six brothers of Feroz learned the nuances of this art from their father.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
A Bahurupiya keeps on adding new stuff to his bag. The intention is to appear more authentic and stand out.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Ameen Khan, a young Bahurupiya from Sikar in Rajasthan, needs someone to help in his metamorphosis. He can paint his face and body himself but not his back. Once the body paint dries up completely, he fixes on the tail and roams as a tiger to entertain his audience. But kids often get scared, despite his polite gestures.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Shamshad, a son of Shivraj Bahurupiya, performs not only in traditional fashion but believes in experimentation and improvisation to make his roles more relevant. When asked about his impersonation as a mix of an Indian gibbon and a tiger, he said, “Gibbon or monkeys are liked mostly by children and they know how one looks like. I intend to remind them of tiger as well so that they are not scared, but have fun.” He organizes workshops for children to teach make-up, attire, and nuances of getting into the character. This is his way to spread awareness about the vanishing tribe of Bahurupiya.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Raghav, the child, and R. Ashok, playing as Lord Hanuman, are members of a group from Raichur in Karnataka state. When asked about the green color of Lord Hanuman, who is generally seen smeared in vermilion, the head of the group, Kalyanam Nagraj, said, “He was born green and adopted the vermillion later on as mentioned in Ramayana.” Unlike their North Indian counterparts, the Bahurupiyas or Veshdharis of South India didn’t perform solo. They performed in groups to tell mythological tales.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Fareed performs one of his favorite roles of Lord Shiva.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Goddess Kali is the most-worshipped deity in West Bengal. This is why almost every Bahurupiya (or Bahurupi, as they call themselves in the Bengali language) performs this role, as it helps them get alms from devotees. Here Rajiv from Birbhum plays Kali, but he has taken off the red tongue that gives the Goddess her furious look.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Y. Shivaji posing as Edambi (as Supranakha, the sister of demon king Ravana, is called in South India mythological scriptures). He hails from Raichur and is a member of the Janpada Kalakar troop. He started putting on his make up four hours before his performance.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
India’s Vanishing Art of ‘Impersonation’
Akram, posing as a clown, taking a selfie with another artist performing as a dacoit.
Image Credit: Prabhat Singh
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