ONCE CLOSE TO ROYALTY, THEY NOW NEED A SAVIOUR
Delhi hosts its first National Behrupiye Festival, revealing tales of great gift and deep despair
Once upon a time, they had a prestigious position in India’s royal palaces, but the 21st century hasn’t been kind to the community of performers called the Behrupiye, the human chameleons who can play dozens of different roles.
Though on the decline, the community of performing artists had much to cheer about recently. The National Behrupiye Festival, organised by Martand Foundation, Udaipur, and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, in Delhi for the first time, was attended by 70 behrupiye from across the country.
Vilas Jamve, from Martand Foundation, told us, “Behrupiya is a complete play in itself and doesn’t require a stage. [The performer] is the actor, the singer, the director, the writer, the lyricist, and the narrator. This festival is to conserve India’s oldest art form and to promote it.”
When other means of entertainment were not available in the older days, a behrupiya would be called to weddings and other occasions to perform. Their versatility entertained all sections of society. Each behrupiya is trained to take up 52 very different roles.
Krishna Behrupiya, 42, is the seventh generation performer in his family. Of the roles he can play, he says, “I can be Ardhnareeshwar, a lion, a woman, a character from Ramayana or Mahabharata... But my personal favourite is a monkey, because first, I’m a devotee of Lord Hanuman, and second, this role keeps me active. The rest makes me feel a little tired and bored.”
BUT NOT RESPECTED
Krishna has three sons and two younger brothers, all in the same profession. “It’s our family tradition and will always remain in our blood. No one taught us the art of acting, how to put on make-up, to dress up, to write dialogues. We’ve inherited it from our forefathers. This all sounds
cool, but to tell the truth, we aren’t treated with respect in society. The police shoo us away, as if we’re criminals,” says Krishna, who earns ₹10,000-12,000 per month with his stage performances.
A resident of the Capital for the past 10 years, he has been participating in Ramayana shows organised by several committees. He has also gone abroad. “I’ve performed in Washington DC and at the Berlin Film Festival. We got paid ₹500 per day. Despite representing India at the international level, we’re not valued,” says Krishna. Once he felt very humiliated when asked to dress up and scare away monkeys, but since that sort of work paid, he made it part of his profession.
Another Delhi-based artist, Ratan Nazzaruddin, took this up as a profession at the age of 16. “Har behrupiye ka guru uska baap hot hai,” he says, now aged 52. “I learnt all the basic techniques from my father. We are god-gifted, but the government doesn’t want to talk about us. They invite us to perform, give us certificates, but don’t care about us. We’re dying, and we need to be saved. They should identify authentic behrupiyas and we should be provided identity cards. This will let us perform peacefully; otherwise police call us ‘choruchakke.’”
ALMOST WIPED OUT
At the festival, an artist named Sikander was dressed up as Mahatma Gandhi.
“This is funny, everyone is wishing me belated happy birthday,” he laughed. “My forefathers used to perform at emperor Akbar’s court. Behrupiyas were always close to the kings — they’d feed us, we’d entertain them. The government could never understand our community. Some years ago, our caste of behrupiyas got nullified. We don’t exist in the government caste register. We need attention, otherwise we’ll become a chapter in the school books,” said Sikander.
My forefathers used to perform at emperor Akbar’s court. Behrupiyas were always close to the kings — they’d feed us, we’d entertain them. The government could never understand our community. SIKANDER A BEHRUPIYA ARTIST