A man in the get up of Lord Shiva goes around the city performing his old tricks in hope of getting a meagre amount so as to achieve a square meal a day. Yes, I am talking of a bohurupi man trying to make a living by taking up the role of a different character everyday. He is one of the very few people who continues taking this art form forward even though his livelihood is not a stable one anymore.
‘Bohurupi’ literally translates to an individual with many personalities (bohu: multiple; roopi: personality). They constitute a community of artists who have been performing for years in various corners of the state of West Bengal for centuries.
It is a form of art that has been transferred from one generation to its posterity mostly through verbal means since there aren’t any formal written documents for the same. Since olden times, these groups from rural Bengal regions were awarded with money by Zamindars (landlords) to dress up as the deities and demons of Hindu mythology and play small skits conveying mythological stories.
They went through an elaborate process of dress-up and make-up to assume the characters and portray rural myths and stories through dances and plays. The bohurupi community had the remarkable ability to dance, act, sing and switch characters in the blink of an eye.
They were often reckoned by the palaces and zamindar houses for entertainment during weddings and social functions. But this refers to a time when bohurupis were found in abundance, dressing up everyday to act and earn a livelihood.
One of the most striking features of this art form was that it was a male dominated activity, that is, men dressed up as both male and female deities to entertain crowds. At present times, their numbers have reduced and the community has been pushed only to the outskirts of society.
Over the years, bohurupis have become more of a historical phenomenon than an everyday form of art and livelihood. While once they were viewed with respect, now they are treated with ridicule and neglect. A community of only a handful people continue taking forward this form of art.
The future generations do not want to follow their older generations as this way of lifestyle lacks prospective earning opportunities. Most of the communities historically connected with the art, currently belong to marginalised and socio-economically disadvantaged groups.
They are compelled to either leave the bohuropi lifestyle completely and search for alternative economic sources or it merely becomes a leisure activity. The earnings that were once high and capable of sustaining a family, are not substantial anymore. Moreover, there exists increasing prices and corruption in the schemes introduced by the state government for the benefit of such communities.
Today’s busy lives, forces them to search for easier methodologies to undertake the art. Furthermore, the art of bohoorupi has lost its shine and appeal to the rural masses as they seek for different means for entertainment in a digital world. These reflect signs of an endangered art briskly moving towards extinction.
Raibenshe: It is another traditional martial folk dance form from Murshidabad, Bardhaman and Birbhum districts of West Bengal. It is done with vigorous movements and aerobatics using a raibansh (a large bamboo stick). It was started by the Bagdi community who were typically bodyguards of the Bengali zamindars of the Bengal Doab area in mediaeval times.
Chhau: Another form of folk martial dance originating from the tribal district of Purulia also faces the risk of extinction. It is performed with acrobatics and martial arts with strong movements, with a mask depicting the character to be portrayed which is most commonly a Hindu mythological character. It is also categorised under UNESCO’S World Heritage list of dances.
Kirtan dance: This is another dance form originating from West Bengal which offers prayers and is undertaken in praise, adoration and devotion towards God. It gained more concept and form by the contribution of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu around the 15th century. It is considered more of an experience comprising ecstatic dance and music than an ordeal and doesn’t discriminate on the basis of colour, caste, gender, religion or any other such ground.
Cultural heritage is not just the reflection of the age old history of a civilisation but also the legacy it is capable of leaving behind. It can also be utilised as a resource in the modern world – be it economic or social.
For instance, Indian heritage, both tangible and intangible, has proved to be a huge part of our tourism development and bringing in investments, adding to the financial resources of the nation.
Dance forms such as Ghoomar, Kath-Putli Dance along with Rajastjani folk music gives a holistic experience to tourists and attracts greater fascination for the culture and development of tourism as well. In Kerala, dance forms such as UNESCO-designated Kathakali Dance has had a similar influence.
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Moreover, the newer generations of the civilisation concerned are also capable of developing their cultural heritage with greater advent of technological and socio-economic betterments – be it through preservation of the pristine form or giving rise to a completely new one.
But, with the rise of industrialisation in the 20 century, the demand and stature of Indian artisans engaged in various such art forms started declining. In a number of cases, tangible components of cultural heritage such as methods of painting, dyeing and sculpture lost the glory that it once had as mechanised goods at cheaper costs replaced them.
Modern forms of income and expenditure was the chief cause for steep deterioration in the quality of these arts and the number of people engaged in them. The extinction of these art forms would result in heavy cultural loss for the nation.
While mainstream culture has proved to be a substantial force in influencing people’s opinions and thoughts about various components of society, it has not been able to contribute much in the promotion of our cultural heritage in the true sense as it emphasised more on the commercial aspect rather than the qualitative one.
It has gone largely along the pre-established notions about these communities, only promoting stereotypes rather than the truth, hence, upholding a biased overview. It has flown more with the popularity quotient and not the propagation of the true state that these once popular communities are currently in.
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Even then, the popularisation of these art forms haven’t been enough to draw mass attention to the plight of these people.
So as to evade the possibility of these symbols of cultural heritage facing extinction, following are some of the most plausible methods that can prove to be a boost for the sustenance and development of the art:
Good advertisement methods: The waters of the international markets and demand graphs need to be tested and likewise advertisement and promotional materials need to be put forward. The market for these traditional arts Crafts need to be increased.
Incentives for people engaged: So as to encourage greater masses into adopting these art forms, the local governments can introduce policies for incentives for people engaged in those.
These incentives can be in the form of monetary help or even guaranteeing the engaged groups a certain number of shows in a certain period of time so as to keep a regular income. This would give a huge boost to its market.
Employment opportunities: In giving incentives it would also turn the practice of these art forms into a more lucrative field. These fields can also prove to be a booming area for employment of marginalised gender groups, especially in art forms such as the bohurupi considering it is a predominantly male avenue.
This would not only increase representation in the field but it will also receive a certain group of people willing to work and promote it while simultaneously generating an income opportunity for them.
Amalgamation of older forms with more popular ones: An amalgamation of older and newer art forms will result in an exchange of experiences and cultures and help in the promotion of the more traditional ones.
Awareness regarding cultural heritage: There needs to be educational campaigns for informing people about the extinction of cultural heritage and all the ways it can harm our community directly. There should be adequate information regarding various cultures from very basic levels of education. Because how often do we do things just for the benefit of our community and not us directly?
All across India, there are numerous art forms on the verge of extinction – starting from the Rogan Paintings of Kutch in the West, to Paitkar painting of Jharkhand and Dokra of Chhattisgarh in Central India to Bamboo Painting of Assam in the East.
All these art forms have an extremely rich past, perpetuated from ancient and mediaeval times as well as the ability to leave behind an equally rich legacy for the future generations to appreciate, analyse and reproduce. While it does put a huge responsibility on the government, especially it’s local wings, the common people also have a lot to contribute.
People with access to social media and other means of mass communication can take up the responsibility to promote and popularise these local forms of art by sharing folklores and conventional practises surrounding these forms of art.
Note: The author is part of the Dec ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program.