‘Bahurupee’ is an ancient folk art form of India. It has withstood the ravages of time and has somehow retained its existence as a popular art form mainly meant for the rural audience across the country.

In the Puranic as well as a medieval period of Indian history, the Bahurupees as performers enjoyed sufficient patronage from the upper echelons of society as well as the Kings and Badshahs who ruled. Unfortunately, the lure of the Internet, YouTube and other such ‘short cut’ means of entertainment via visual media are now eating into the vitals of this art which is now verging on extinction.

Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi in collaboration with Martanda Foundation, Udaipur organised a three-day All India Bahurupeeya Festival from 5 to 7 October 2018 at the IGNCA campus. The purpose was to save and rejuvenate the dying art.

According to the festival literature, the title slogan of the festival was ‘Byakti Ek, Roop Anek’ (One Being, Many Forms), the coinage by Mr Sachchidananda Joshi, Member Secretary of IGNCA. At least 65 ‘kalakars’ (artists) from various states of India like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, M.P., Jharkhand, four South Indian states — Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and recently born Telangana, West Bengal and of course Delhi were present to show their acting skills.

But then, Bahurupee is not acting alone, it is acting plus costume design, make-up as well as script-writing. To add colour to the festival, the organisers arranged various novel and well-planned events and allotted slots for each of them. A big white canvas was pasted on a board for children who could draw and paint. The compound took the look of a fair ground with exhibition of back lit flexes, hoardings and enlarged photographs of artists all around the ground. Two consecutive mornings, we were all were taken to two different schools in and around New Delhi and NCR.

The ‘kalakars’ displayed their performances before hundreds of children, their teachers and some guardians and interacted with them. On the last day the entire morning session was allotted for a beautiful programme coined ‘Tum bhi Bahrupee Bano’ (You too become a Bahurupee). Hundreds of children took part in the programme which was a kind of workshop for them.

Other programmes included ‘Bahurupees in Action’ which was in fact an amateur photographers’ photo competition, Selfie with the Bahurupees etc. There were prizes for the winner( s) in each category. Awards and certificates etc. were handed over at the valediction on the last evening of the festival.

Throughout the festival, each Bahurupee had to present a total of 5 to 6 items in a day. Some of the performances were simply mesmerising. Sikandar Abbas Khan from Gujarat, Daud Khan from Rajasthan, Kishan and Abdul Hamid from Delhi, Subal Das Bairagya from Birbhum, West Bengal were excellent performers. The four men belonging to the ‘Bajikar’ community from Sitalgram village, West Bengal – Rajib, Sujit, Dagar and Pranab, Ratan Aundkar from Maharashtra, Mehboob, Pappu from Rajasthan, and Chand from Delhi were also competent actors who could win the hearts of the audience.

In general, all artists from almost all states performed well. Incidentally, Daud Khan and Kishan were both winners of President’s award during the tenure of Dr. Sankar Dayal Sharma. Daud’s role as Badshah Akbar had its content rooted in the super hit film of yesteryears ‘Mughal-e Azam’. It was a conversation between Akbar and Salim, though Salim was not physically present on the scene. It was almost a soliloquy. I closed my eyes and could instantly hear Prithviraj Kapur speaking in his typical husky voice to Dilip Kumar. It was an excellent performance indeed.

The piece ‘Gaddi Lohari’ (Quarrel between husband and wife of Lohar community) played by Abdul Hamid and Chand together, from Delhi in pure Rajasthani language was a nice presentation. Sikandar Abbas Khan (Gujarat) became ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ who, it seemed, appeared from the pages of the history of India’s freedom struggle and enthralled the audience.

Subal Das Bairagya’s (from West Bengal) ‘Buro-Buri’ (Old man and old woman combined together; one body, two forms) was also an excellent presentation. Sujit Bajiikar’s (West Bengal) ‘Hathat Babu’ (A gentleman) was a hilarious piece enjoyed by the audience to the brim. Chand’s (Delhi) ‘A Bhil king’ was equally interesting, so far as makeup is concerned. Abdul Hamid is a versatile artist with a fair control over all he does.

The actors from South India preferred community acting with a song and music team on the stage to create the necessary mood and support the actors. Their presentations almost wholly were mythological in content, mostly from the South Indian (probably in Tamil) version of the Ramayana.

Comparatively less significant characters like Valmiki, Angada, Sugrib, Sunda, Upasunda, Dundubhi, Shurpanakha and her son Jamba Kumar were played by the South Indian teams. Altogether 18 artists represented the four States of South India, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. This arrangement reminds one of a popular form of folk art in Bengal and also in the Eastern Region known as ‘Jatra’ (Village Opera). The presentations were visually attractive, undoubtedly.

A performance by each of the Bahurupees was filmed separately in the IGNCA’S own studio for making a documentary film in near future. It was a welcome decision of IGNCA.

The Bahurupees are neither Muslims nor Hindus nor of any particular institutional religious system. Quite a good number of Muslim artists played Puranic or epic characters like Rama, Ravana, Narada and so on. Together they constitute a symbol of the process of ‘Unity in Diversity’ that characterizes India.

I have been associated with the All India Bahurupeeya Festival held at Jawahar Kala Kendra (JKK), Jaipur, and Rajasthan in 2010, when residing at Jaipur for a number of years. In 2016, when the respected Vilas Janveji invited me to one such programme at Udaipur at the West Zone Cultural Centre, I could not attend due to certain personal reasons. This time too, Vilasji almost compelled me to attend the programme at IGNCA as the Coordinator for the West Bengal team.

Though not physically in good shape, I could not resist the temptation. Vilasji has passion and commitment in what he does. This festival is the result of a perfect coordination and cooperation between the officials of IGNCA and others connected with the team. Mr Vilas Janve from Mart and Foundation is one of the generals who contributed to the conceptualisation of the festival in coordination with IGNCA, organised and anchored each and every slot with utmost care and precision. Kudos to him!

Another young man who worked silently but effectively throughout the festival and coordinated with all the teams at all times is Kunal Sharma. Mr K.K.Kate and Ms K.Janve managed the affairs on the ground meticulously by attending to programme details, stage management, paper works and other smaller but important things that normally skip attention.

The vibrant ambience of the festival is visible in the photographs. Indeed, this was an unforgettable experience.