Have you ever met the man behind a Behrupiya? Behrupiya artists live many lives, and face many challenges when the vivid facepaint is washed off

28, Jan 2022 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

Culture is the knowledge, behaviour, beliefs, customs, morals, collective attitudes and achievements of people. The folk art of ‘behrupiya’ or an artist who takes on multiple characters, perhaps began as storytelling, song, dance, art and poetry all rolled into one, and evolved as rural entertainment; it has survived centuries. However, as challenges grow for all aspects of human survival, so does the threat to this gem of folk culture.

We met Balihari Das, a multi-faceted artist, his expressive face painted in grey, red, white with motifs of various characters he enacts. He is a resident of Birbhum, and is poetic even when he describes his rural life. “In the streets of Birbhum, red dust coats our feet, and in the winter, with the sweetness of the sun shines on our faces, as we move on from one village to another,” he says. He recalls being greeted by enthusiastic children running behind the troupe in the past, but that number has dropped dramatically already.

The young people of Birbhum have turned away from the profession of folk theatre and storytelling. Many have left the profession of their ancestors and work as carpenters, masons, some others have left home and moved to other parts of the country, all to earn a living.

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However, there are a few, like Balihari Das, who continue in the old profession. He said that there was even a state level conference held at Berhampur in Murshidabad held in 1986 to organise the folk theatre artists. However, not much was done after that.

“It is our duty to respect this art. Many think of the behrupiyas doing their acts on the streets as beggars,” he says the people no longer remember the difference between a beggar and a behrupiya who performs then waits for a payment. “It’s not a shame for us,” he says. However, it is the citizen, his audience who need to be more aware when we see or meet such an artist.

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Like all artists, the Covid waves have left behrupiyas emotionally devastated and penniless. The few who continue live in the hope that people respect their art and help them survive another day.

This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people.

Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.


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