The following project was done with the support of's Grant in 2018 towards completion and executing the same.
The link to published work on Sahapedia's webite -
Bahurupis are nomadic people who once travelled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent and performed in public spaces. Among the oldest performers of social entertainment in India, bahurupis, who are experts in disguise, often acted as spies for kings. Bahurupi literally means a person who has many (bahu) forms (rupa). They achieve bodily transformation through a combination of make-up, body paint, masks, costumes, prosthetics, wigs and jewellery. Much like theatre actors, their physical transformation involves imitation of body language, mimicry, dance moves and exaggerated gestures. However, the bahurupis never perform on stage.
The series documents the daily life of the bahurupi community living in Bishaypur village, Birbhum district, West Bengal. Bishaypur is located about 50 km from Bolpur town, and is home to eight families of performers. They belong to the Bediya tribe, a Scheduled Tribe settled in the eastern and northern parts of India. 
In their disguised form they visit villages, pilgrimages and fairs, entertaining people with their dramatic performances, storytelling skills and expert mimicry. The villagers, in turn, reward the bahurupis with money or by donating food and clothes. This symbiotic relationship between the performers and the audience, the common people, is essential to the survival of the profession.  The bahurupi community of Bishaypur still practice the art frequently, if not daily, going out to neighbouring villages dressed up as mythical and historical characters or as animals. These days, they are also invited to perform in festivals for tourists and at wedding ceremonies. 
The bahurupis are witty and streetwise. They entertain their audience in various ways— frightening, teasing or chasing them around, or performing a mock fight. The audience applaud and appreciate their sense of humour and unpredictable behaviour.  Their art form now has a cultural identity; it is not merely a means of livelihood. Yet, the social status of these artists remains precarious. In Bishaypur, their houses are built on the northern fringes of the village, indicating a clear demarcation. They are addressed as ‘gamar’, which in local dialect translates to ‘the others’. The Bediya people have always been aware of this discrimination and the dynamics of the caste system. When they are invited to other villages, bahurupis are not allowed inside homes, unless it belongs to a low-caste family. Upper-caste families denounce the Bediya community as untouchables. However, during their performances, their transformation into gods and goddesses seems to reduce the caste barriers momentarily. People interact and seek blessings from the avatars, even if they do not see the actual individual as an equal. 
Over the past seven decades, performing as a bahurupi was the sole livelihood of the Bediyas. Only recently have the people of the community started taking up stable jobs and leading a relatively sedentary life. Bahurupi performances are physically demanding but the income they earn justifies neither the effort nor the time invested. Like everyone else, the bahurupis too want their children to go to schools, get proper college education and an upwardly mobile career. 
Without the younger generation engaging in the profession, the future of the bahurupi performance is endangered. Faced with the rising cost of living, the new-generation Bediyas are reluctant about continuing the tradition, and in the near future, without outside support, they might have to forsake it entirely. The community urgently needs support from outside to ensure that the rich bahurupiya culture continues.

Basudeb Chowdhury Byadh dressed as Kaali

In the past, bahurupis painted their bodies with natural colours. They have now shifted to cost-effective artificial colours, except for black which is still extracted from lamp soot. The primary colours the bahurupis use are green, red, yellow, blue and white, which are mixed to create secondary shades.

Bahurupis Nanichura Chowdhury Byadh, Shyam Sundar Chowdhury Byadh, Prahlad Bittar and Basudeb Chowdhury Byadh (from left to right) put on make-up on a Sunday morning. Most of them do odd jobs on weekdays, and go out to perform on Sundays. This helps them earn a little extra income and keeps the art alive.

Barun Das Byadh dresses up as Ravan while Nonichura puts on make-up to play Ram. The distinctive blue colour on the latter’s face and the Vaishnava tika on his forehead are markers of Ram, an avatar of Vishnu.

Nonichura as Ram (left) and Barun as Ravan (right) enact the climactic battle of Lanka at the Mathurapur Maagrai Chonditala Mela.

Soura Bittar dressing up as Radha.

Sanatan helps Soura with draping Radha’s saree.

Sanatan Chowdhury Byadh does not perform much these days. However, when he is at home in Uttar Durgapur village, he sometimes dresses up as his favourite character, Krishna. These days, he does not perform for money but as a tribute to the art.

Basudeb Chowdhury dressed up as Kaali

Basudeb, dressed as Kali, and Shyam Sundar, dressed as Shiva, strike a pose in Puran Mahugram village. When bahurupis visit villages they are much admired by the locals, particularly women, who come out to seek the blessings of the avatars of gods and goddesses.

At a house in a tribal village in Daikota, Shyam Sundar, dressed as Durga, listens to the plight of an old woman. The bahurupis seek alms from villagers but they also empathise with the poor and the ill, who share their problems with them. Though they cannot always help them financially, they provide warmth and compassion.

Nonichura’s wife helps him put on the mask of Putana. According to the Mahabharata, Putana was sent by Kamsa to murder infant Krishna. She tries to poison the god while feeding him milk from her breasts but is killed in the process. Hence the protuberant breasts of the costume.

Tarak, dressed as a lion, in the middle of a classic pouncing act. Bahurupis take advantage of the tall grass growing on the banks of the Mayurakshi River to hide and catch unsuspecting strollers unawares.

Basudeb, dressed as Durga, crosses the Mayurakshi on a boat while travelling from Nima to Tilpara. Country boats act as lifeline for villagers when Mayurakshi’s high water level leads to floods

Tarak as a lion and Basudeb as Durga strike a pose at Mathurapur Maagrai Chonditala Mela. In the background is the Mayurakshi River. Mayurakshi, also called Mor, flows through Jharkhand and through the districts of Birbhum and Murshidabad in West Bengal before reaching the Hooghly River. 

Tilak, Bhanu’s 13-year-old son, wears his most prized possession, a rudraksh mala (necklace made of prayer beads). It was gifted to him 12 years ago by a sadhu when Bhanu and his troupe visited an ashram in a village near Rampurhat. The sadhu was impressed with his transformation into the god Shiva.

Bhanu, as Shiva, boards a local bus at Labpur village.

Bhanu, as Shiva, helps Shyam Sundar, playing Durga, drink water from a handpump. Bahurupis usually do not enter the houses in the villages where they perform, because of the taboos attached to their profession and caste. For the same reason, they perform outdoors or in public spaces.

Bahurupis have their lunch at a roadside eatery. There are around three eateries where they are comfortable eating. In other places, they still feel the threat of potential discrimination.

Bhanu shares his day’s earnings with his wife and child. On a good day, they may make around hundred or two hundred rupees. While that’s not much, it helps sustain their families.

Nonichura Byadh’s daughter, Moupriya, and Basudeb Byadh’s daughter, Bithi, love playing with their fathers’ props, especially the wigs. Here Bithi is trying on a long-haired Shiva wig, adorned with a fake snake.

Bibek Chowdhury Byadh, dressed as a tiger, prowling in the bush.

Scared children are comforted by their mothers. Bibek is a veteran bahurupi, famous for his tiger avatar. Though he is almost 70, he still goes out to perform.

Dipak Chowdhury Byadh paints his body to transform himself into a tiger. Though this takes much longer to prepare, he prefers body paint over wearing a tiger bodysuit and mask.

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