The Bediya Bahurupis of Birbhum, West Bengal
The Bahurupis are the nomadic people that once traveled through the length and breadth of India whilst performing in public spaces and platforms, being the singular form of social entertainment. The Bahurupis are among the oldest performers of social entertainment in India, and during the Pre-British Era, they would commonly act as spies for the king. The Bahurupis have clung to their traditional art and still count on it for survival, as it is their only means to earn a livelihood in today’s fast-moving society.
In a rough translation of the word ‘Bahurupi’, it means a street performer. In a literal translation, it means a person who has many roops (forms). They achieve bodily transformation through make-ups, masks, body paint, prosthetics, wigs, and wear costumes of Hindu Gods and Goddesses or other characters from mythological stories, bardic tales, and finally perform folk shows, in return for contributions from the audience. One should note that the Bahurupis do not perform on the stage! Their art is much like theatre artists, as both physically transform themselves, while using imitation, body language, and dance moves. The Bahurupis walk under the blazing sun for hours each day, and usually eat what the villagers offer them.
The Bahurupis belong to Bediya community, a Scheduled Tribe that comprises around 1.25% of the Scheduled Tribe population in Birbhum district, according to Census 2011. Bishaypur village currently has around 30 families with around 70 artistes including children. According to Aditya Mukhopadhyay, a folk-art researcher who has authored a book on Bahurupis titled Banglar Bahurupi (Bengal’s Bahurupis), estimates that around 70 Bahurupis are still active in Bengal, with most of them living in Bishaypur and the rest in Tarakeswar in Hooghly district and some other areas.
The Bediya tribe was originally a hunting tribe, that inhabited the area adjoining the forests near the Muyarkashi river. They often used to catch fish and other animals and sell them in the market as pets and sometimes for consumption. As they were a tribe that was considered low in the social hierarchy, normal jobs were not available for them, such as agriculture, clothing, and crafts. Later, forest laws were enacted and the Bediyas had to eventually leave hunting, leaving them unemployed. Hence all of this took up small jobs, such as that of a snake charmer, herbal medicine sellers, and petty dancers. This is when an 80-year-old man, who was working as a guard at a Zamindars house, saw a performance by a vert trained actor and got heavily inspired by it. When he went back to his house, he taught his dance and acting moves to his family which was a close-knit community. This eventually led to the emergence of Bahurupi culture.
But, these days, the Bahurupis are also invited to perform at festivals and at wedding ceremonies. 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. In Bishaypur, their houses are built on the northern fringes of the village, indicating a clear demarcation. They are addressed as ‘gamar’, which in local dialect translates to ‘the others’. The Bediya people have always been aware of this discrimination and the dynamics of the caste system. When they are invited to other villages, bahurupis are not allowed inside homes, unless it belongs to a low-caste family. Upper-caste families denounce the Bediya community as untouchables. However, during their performances, their transformation into gods and goddesses seems to reduce the caste barriers momentarily. People interact and seek blessings from the avatars, even if they do not see the actual individual as an equal.
Over the past seven decades, performing as a bahurupi was the sole livelihood of the Bediyas. Only recently have the people of the community started taking up stable jobs and leading a relatively sedentary life. Bahurupi performances are physically demanding but the income they earn justifies neither the effort nor the time invested. Like everyone else, the bahurupis too want their children to go to schools, get a proper college education, and an upwardly mobile career. Without the younger generation engaging in the profession, the future of the bahurupi performance is endangered. Faced with the rising cost of living, the new-generation Bediyas are reluctant about continuing the tradition, and in the near future, without outside support, they might have to forsake it entirely. The community urgently needs support from outside to ensure that the rich bahurupiya culture continues.
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