Balaram Mondal is not amused. The petticoat that has been given to him stops inches above his ankles. He grunts and asks his wife for a bigger size. She pleads helplessness. Mondal has to make do with what he has.
An hour of intense preparation later, Mondal will be ready. He was Shiva yesterday; he is set to hit the road as the goddess Kali today.
Click here to view a slideshow of photographs of behrupia artist Balaram Mondal
At 44, Mondal has spent exactly half his life as a behrupia—the many-faced folk performers in West Bengal who dress as mythological and godly characters, among others, and traverse vast terrain collecting alms.
Most of the behrupias have basic educational qualifications and this traditional profession assures them a decent income, both in cash and kind. But soliciting this can often be demeaning.
An important element in his oeuvre, Mondal says, is dressing up as female characters such as the Hindu goddesses Kali and Durga, Radha and sundry rakshasis (female demons). Travelling in trains or manoeuvring through busy city streets with multiple hands and other goddess paraphernalia is no easy task, but with no female behrupias around, it’s a role Mondal often has to play.
Other folk art forms in West Bengal such as Jatra (the travelling folk theatre) may have shed their exclusively male past to allow women performers on stage, but the traditional craft of behrupias remains a steadfastly male domain.
“Because the art of behrupia necessarily entails travelling long distances and spending nights in the open, it’s an insecure profession for women,” reasons Satyajit Goswami, associate professor at Rishi Bankim Chandra College for Women, Naihati, North 24 Parganas, and author of a book on Bengal’s behrupias. “One might find young girls as behrupias but they opt out with adulthood. Though an ancient art form, the tradition of only-male performers continues, whereby men also play female roles,” he says.
In Tarakeshwar town, which is among the focal points of the behrupia tradition in West Bengal, and from where around two dozen professional practitioners take the train each morning for the streets of Kolkata, Kalipada Pal is a renowned figure. After spending nearly five decades as a behrupia, the octogenarian’s primary earnings these days come from renting out costumes and grooming young professionals.
The one occasion when a married woman from Pal’s neighbouring village came along wanting to be a behrupia, the encounter was short-lived.
“Like many others who later became behrupias, she too had run away from home. But being a woman, she presented other challenges,” says Pal. “We couldn’t risk sending her out. There was also the chance of her getting solicited by men and the profession earning a bad reputation,” Mondal says.
Mondal himself ran away from home. Pal took him in around 20 years ago, and Mondal and his wife now live with him. As he sits in the open courtyard of Pal’s unadorned home, Mondal recounts how despite being a man dressed as a woman, he has had to contend with the “greedy male gaze” and, worse, “those groping hands”, while on the streets. “They pinch and touch even though I’m dressed as a goddess. I think it is also because people are less reverential these days,” he says, as his shaving brush stirs up rich foam on his face, covering a week-old stubble.
The beard goes first, the thick moustache follows. Out comes Mondal’s make-up box, with seven small bowls containing paint and other beauty items. He coats his face with cream before applying a dark paint. He colours his lips a bright red and takes time to paint the third eye. His blouse is buttoned, sari carefully draped. From an iron trunk, Pal brings out a garland of fake human heads and other adornments.
It’s exacting work that the behrupia has perfected. Ready, Mondal permits himself a cigarette. “In this form, I feel an added shakti (strength) come over me,” he says between drags.
Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik / Mint