Being a part of storytelling is an enchanting experience. It does not matter if you are a listener or a narrator, but any form of art that involves stories never fails to capture our attention. India – being a land of rich cultures and diverse traditions – is home to myriad forms of storytelling.
Irrespective of whether it is a village, small town or a big city, children gather around their grandparents pestering them to narrate stories. It was an experience that started with ‘once upon a time…’ and the effects of which used to linger around until a new story was narrated. Gradually, televisions took over the place of grandparents and created a magical world around us with stories from around the world narrated in mesmerising ways.
Today, we are surrounded by gadgets. We have technologically aided equipments for every individual need. We play and replay stories from everywhere on our palms. Smartphones and tablets have become our companions to an extent that most of the children do not even pester their parents for bedtime stories anymore.
Somewhere during this transition, we lost touch with some of the most entertaining forms of storytelling. The ignorance and feigning superiority of a few means that these wonderful forms of storytelling are on the path to extinction. One such story is that of the Behrupiyas.
The Origin of Behrupiyas
The term Behrupiya is a conjunction of two Sanskrit words – Bahu, which means many and Roop, which means appearance or disguise. They were also known as Naqal, which means to mimic or imitate and also as Maskhara, a derivative of Arabic word that means a jester. This traditional art form has its roots not just in India, but also in Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh as well.
It is said that Behrupiyas originated from Rajasthan. They were either court jesters to the many royal dynasties of Rajasthan during the medieval times. Or they were sent from one court to another as undercover spies to gather valuable information as part of rivalries between feuding royal families.
It was common during the peak of this art form for Behrupiyas, dressed as historical and mythological characters, to entertain people during special occasions such as marriages and other festivals. Witty interplay of dialogues, elaborate costumes and make-up created a time-travelling experience amongst the gathering. In the end, they would be awarded baksheesh and other gifts for entertaining the crowd.
With time, royalties ceased across the country and use of technology spread, thereby diminishing the essence of this colorful art form and its charms. The future of Berupiyas seemed to disappear forever due to the end of rule of the kings who were the patrons to this art form. Thus, Behrupiyas across the country, and even from the neighboring countries migrated to various places in search of a livelihood. The essence of religion still prevailed strongly in the country and the groups went back to their disguises, not as spies but as religious symbols. Along with their efforts to promote their dying art form, they also took to public entertainment and acrobatics.
The Decline of Behrupiyas
As time passed the means of earning money through this art form began to ebb. With a majority of people favoring modern mediums of entertainment over these ‘impersonators’, Behrupiyas decided to alter their lifestyle. They began to adapt to the changing times, now playing cartoon characters and other contemporary roles. They were soon seen as entertainers at parties and social gatherings. The old stories were lost.
This colourful art form now seems to have lost its charm and is on the verge of closing its last doors due to various reasons. Few members from the earlier generations of Behrupiyas point out the prevelance of technology as a reason for the ebbing art. Also, the present generation who are educated, take little or no interest in reviving their family heritage. The few remaining entertainers are mostly scattered across Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh.
Another reason for this is the lack of documentation of the art form. It can be partly attributed to the fact that the Behrupiyas used to be the spies and any documentation on their part would only mean losing their lives.
The story of these storytellers needs to be told. It is a way of bringing the present generation to know more about this art form and understand the legacy of cultures that are already lost amidst the pages of history.
The Lost Behrupiya
In an attempt to bring to light this dying form of storytelling, the director-producer duo, Sriram Dalton and Rupesh Sahay created a National Award winning short film, The Lost Behrupiya. It speaks of the struggling Behrupiya amidst the technologically-driven entertainment world, his efforts to find a footing and his ultimate abandonment of his profession. It is such efforts that can still revive and provide a new platform for not just the Behrupiyas but many more such art forms that are the true essence of rustic cultures of India.
Watch the short movie, The Lost Behrupiya here:
(Pic credit: The Lost Behrupiya)