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The travails of Bagh Bahadur

By Manjira Majumdar

Kaler Rakhal explores the cultural displacement and loss of livelihood of West Bengal’s bahurupis (performing artists) in the time of ‘development’

Bengali feature film Kaler Rakhal

“You have stolen my mango trees! Return them to me at once!”, an elderly villager screams to no one in particular in the Bengali feature film titled Kaler Rakhal. Loosely translated the title means ‘Shepherd of our Time’, but for non-Indian viewers the film, directed by Sekhar Das, is called The Understudy. Working around a number of allegories, the film reinforces the fact that a good film can be a tool both to entertain and to inform without being preachy.  

Kaler Rakhal raises a number of social issues like corruption, failed electoral promises, and the clash of values in today’s times of progress and development. But what is overriding is the threat to the livelihood of a simple vulnerable people who have been engaged in a 200-year-old profession. 

It is common in rural Bengal, amidst the palm trees and vast fields of rice, to suddenly come across groups of people dressed as mythological characters. These are the bohurupis who, with their heavily made-up faces and colourful costumes, extend their hands for alms, either in cash or kind. They often get Rs 5, or a fistful of rice.  

Bohurupi (many [bahu], masks [roop]) is considered a performing art in many parts of India. In West Bengal, bohurupis dress up as popular characters and animals (the tiger being a favourite). The accent is on the carefully and garishly painted faces and the performers rely heavily on facial expressions as men double up as women, injecting a sense of humour that borders on the risqué.  

These groups of itinerant polymorphic performers often include poor landless farmers who are forced to supplement their income. Members of the group congregate at village fairs or play bit roles in a jatra, the rural theatre form that has spun off a huge cottage industry in villages in a bid to survive the onslaught of films and television reflecting urban stories and concerns. Indeed, the ‘painted Shiva’ begging for alms at the local railway station is in all probability a bohurupi.  

Bohurupis have beenrepresented in Bengali literature and film, though not extensively. Schoolchildren have an entire chapter on the escapades of Chidam Bohurupi in Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya’s novel Srikant, written around 1920. Ritwik Ghatak used the mythological connotations depicted through a bohurupi inhis film Subarnarekha (1962), while Buddhadev Dasgupta based his film Bagh Bahadur (1990) on a short story by Prafulla Roy. The film explores the cultural displacement and alienation of a bohurupi in times of so-called development, when most traditional art forms are being edged out.  

Kaler Rakhal is based on a short story that was later developed into a novel called Dui Nombor Ashami (Accused Number 2) by Nilanjan Chatterjee. The story is about Subol, the son of a very poor peasant, who is also a bohurupi. He is often used as a stand-in for those actually accused of various criminal activities in the local area, in this case the district of Birbhum.  

Kaler Rakhal

For a paltry sum, less than what he would earn as a bohurupi, and occasionally a meal, he is picked up by the police from an appointed place and put behind bars for a night or two. The play takes a sinister turn when he is asked to proxy for suspects in a rape case, the real perpetrators being a gang of local goons who owe their allegiance to a brick factory owner. A young woman documentary filmmaker, a second-generation NRI who is there to film the bohurupis, is raped. Her crime: getting Subol to question the system.  

For Subol, who personifies the role of Vivek, or “conscious”, in bit roles, being framed in a fake rape case is not something he can reconcile to, for he takes his art seriously and believes in honesty and truth as the guiding forces in his life. When his trust in the politicians who claim to protect him is betrayed, he is compelled to run away, only to be ruthlessly hunted down.

Cultural activities such as theatre, singing and dancing keep people together. For centuries such activities by both Muslims and Hindus in Bengal have served to stitch together the social fabric of society. For instance, Muslims freely enact the role of Hindu gods and goddesses -- like Taher, a good friend of Subol, who plays both Draupadi and Sita with panache. He also offers to do an “item number” when a jatra manager threatens to replace him with a starlet of greater “value”.    

It’s difficult to enumerate the exact number of bohurupis in West Bengal as they all do odd jobs to earn a living. Singing and dancing were not always part of the bohurupi act but, in time, they were incorporated as a sort of survival strategy. Besides, there are no proper records. Bohurupis are neither accredited jatra artistes nor are they singing minstrels or bauls who have their own festivals and organisations. This makes them unorganised and therefore marginalised. Although they are used for social and political propaganda, those who have not switched to other forms of livelihood are considered misfits. “In my personal interactions with bohurupis, I have found some of them fiercely wedded to their art,” says filmmaker Sekhar Das. “They improvise, act and sing, and are often torn between their art and commercial aspirations. Their tragedy is like that of any other villager who is caught in this narrowing down of the urban-rural divide.” Their aspirations too are increasing: the younger lot want haat fone (mobiles) and fatfatia (motorbikes) in a bid to be upwardly mobile, which is natural. But without equitable development they are extremely confused.    

“In the absence of data on the dwindling numbers of bohurupis, we cannot lament the death of an art form,” says Dr Shibaji Bandhyopadhyay, professor of cultural studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. He draws an interesting parallel with the art film movement which began in the 1960s, in India, to create a niche for such films. “That’s no longer there. Today we have a good film or a bad film.” 

Similarly, what may seem to be a dying art today can definitely be revived sometime in the future, perhaps in modified form. That is exactly why the director shows Subol’s younger brother picking up a mask used by the latter towards the end of the film. This may be a somewhat clichéd image, but it is all about how resilient and rooted popular art forms are. On “these factors depends its very survival,” says Bandhyopadhyay.         

“There is so much we can still learn from simple rural folk,” reiterates the director who has made three socio-political films to date. “But,” he adds cautiously, “it is their world even if they are not sure of it anymore as they confront a reality of development and progress which comes at a heavy price.”  

A film like Kaler Rakhal helps us realise that even if society at large cannot give the bohurupis back their space through patronage, it at least owes them a dignified existence.   

InfoChange News & Features, May 2009