For Sikander Abbas, 45, donning a new avatar every day has been a way of life. He was only six-months-old when he had his first performance, as the infant Lord Krishna. A ninth-generation behrupiya from Panchmahal, Gujarat, the art of impersonation is Abbas’ greatest inheritance. In the court of Akbar, his forefathers brought a comic relief to the humdrum of day-to-day life through the interplay of witty dialogue, vivid costumes and make-up.
Across India, Nepal and Bangladesh, the community of street performers has struggled to compete and find space in the modern era of entertainment. Once popular, their art form is now on the decline. Although the community finds a brief mention in the Arthashastra, their way of life has been largely undocumented. One good reason is the duties they performed.
“During the time of maharajas, behrupiyas were also spies,” explains Abbas. “They would travel from one kingdom to another in different disguises. This is another reason why their identities were never revealed and are not part of documented history.” Their expertise in make-up made queens often turn to them for tips on beauty. Today, only a few hundred of them remain and they are scattered across Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh.
Sriram Dalton and Rupesh Sahay are a director-producer duo who have taken on the task of telling the story of these performers. The Lost Behrupiya, a National Award-winning short film on the community, is based on memories the two have of their encounters. During their childhood, behrupiyas were a regular sight at weddings and other ceremonies in Jharkhand. “They would show up as dakus, policemen, mythological characters. They took a bakshish only if you were convinced with their performance. If you weren’t, they didn’t ask for a reward. They were a sight everyone waited for,” says Dalton.
With Bollywood actor Ashraful Haque in the lead, the 10-minute short film chronicles the journey of a middle-aged behrupiya struggling to find his feet in an increasingly technology-driven world of entertainment. Turned away repeatedly, he is exasperated and quits his profession.
Due to the lack of documentation, it took Dalton three years of research and extensive travelling through the country to capture the essence of their struggle. Initially, he had written a three-minute screenplay for the film but ended up shooting a 52-minute film. Finally, he decided that the story could be best told without dialogues, through vibrant, slice-of-life montages. The film is an effort to remind the audience of these performers, draw attention to their plight and introduce them to those who are oblivious to their existence.
Although Dalton has moved on to making his next film, Sahay, who works as a creative director at a leading advertising agency in Gurgaon, is working to rally support to save the community and its art form from extinction. The Behrupiya Project, Sahay hopes, will not only help the community revive the art form, but also give it a new edge. “Although this old art form might not find its space on the streets, it can be revamped for it to be able to continue,” he says. “But it needs support from the state and professionals from the entertainment industry.”
For 55-year-old Shubhrati Khan, a behrupiya from Rajasthan, the art of impersonation is all that he knows. All the men in his family of 17 are engaged in the profession. Although he has performed across the length and breadth of the country, his income remains meagre, ranging between Rs 50 and Rs 5,000 for a performance. At times, behrupiyas are also paid in kind. “They give us rice, grains and sometimes even clothes,” he says. With the rising costs of costume and lack of availability of natural make-up, sustaining the art form has become difficult.
In the earlier days, behrupiyas would paint their bodies with vegetable colours and natural glue made from tree sap. The lack of availability of these has also affected their performance. “Adhesive derived from tree sap could stand heat, water and allowed free facial movements,” says Khan. “With synthetic glue, facial movements can get restricted.” Although the family is struggling to make ends meet, quitting is not on their mind.
Recently, Abbas and Khan, along with 54 other behrupiyas, were part of a six-day workshop held in Udaipur by the West Zone Cultural Centre, one of the seven cultural centres established by the government to promote and preserve India’s traditional cultural heritage. Sahay spearheaded the initiative as a part of The Behrupiya Project and conducted sessions on merchandise design for them. He feels that behrupiya-themed merchandise could popularise the art form among the youth as well as help generate supplementary income for the community. Sahay is looking for ways to fund the project.
At the workshop, behrupiyas from three states came together to laud and criticise each others’ work. “The art form differs widely across the length and the breadth of the country,” says Vilas Janve of the West Zone Cultural Centre (WZCS).
For example, while behrupiyas in the north mostly perform solo and without music, in the south, they perform in groups and their performance is accompanied with music. “We thought there was immense scope for them to learn from each other,” adds Janve. There were also sessions on new techniques of make-up, voice modulation and skill training. “The idea of providing them with skill-based training was to enhance their style of performance, while respecting their individuality,” says Janve. In an effort to understand their culture and lifestyle better, they were also asked to fill up detailed questionnaires. The WZCS plans to conduct a series of similar workshops through the year to get an organic perspective. In an effort to document their work, Sahay is also working on a full-length documentary. “Behrupiyas are known for their finesse and the impact they leave with their performances. We cannot let their art form die,” says Sahay.
The state’s first step towards supporting the art form has come as a ray of hope for behrupiyas. The art of impersonation could after all be resurrected.