Meet Dukanji from Allahabad — the mooch nritya samrat, curator of the museum of trash, social activist and wholesome entertainer.
To be strange — his only desire. His name is imprinted in the Guinness Book of World Records (1995), the Limca Book of Records (1994) and the India Book of Records (2012) for an act, the very thought of which can make our facial muscles twitch. He seduces burning candles to sway to any tune on his moustache merely through controlled facial movements. The rest of his body assumes dead.
Meet Dukanji, the 47-year-old exponent of moustache dancing from the Sangam city of Allahabad. Born Rajendra Kumar Tiwari, Dukanji was a standard black sheep in his youth, indifferent to academics but with a flair for unusual art. He started drawing his first audiences early while keeping his father’s little bookshop. The cartoons he drew had absurd catchphrases written under them such as Dukanji, Makanji, and so on. These words soon became a favourite among the customers, who gave him his now famous nickname.
As he grew older, he looked for different ways of entertaining his neighbours and settled at using his bushy, curly moustache to play with props such as flowers. He “always found joy in making people laugh.”
However, one fateful Diwali night, he tried something new. “The power was out, it was pitch dark. Out of sheer fun, I placed a burning candle on my moustache. Strangely, I liked it.” One move led to another and within eight years he emerged as the undisputed mooch nitya samrat of Sangam.
The early days were difficult though and he himself did not take his talent seriously. “I would do it just to please my neighbours. My family had declared me a lunatic. One day, I got an opportunity to perform at a function at the Allahabad University. I won the first prize to everyone's surprise, including mine.”
But the sealing moment came in 1990. A self-doubting Dukanji with his art unknown and a minnow in the world of artistry appeared on stage at the national artists’ conference in Hyderabad. “I was so nervous, at first my feet moved more than my moustache. But the next day when I surprisingly found myself in the newspapers, I realised there was something special about this talent and began to take it seriously.”
To nurture his art he had to develop his breathing techniques. And he did, using the most exceptional means. “I would walk to the city’s dumping zone every morning to see how long I could hold my breath in the stench. I even had to let go off my molars to keep control over my breathing. The doctor said I was mad,” he recounts.
While his popularity soared with each performance, he began to harbour political ambitions and consequently contested for the seats of both MLA and MP. He fared miserably. But what onlookers will surely not forget is that moment when he arrived to file his nominations lying on a funeral stretcher, assuming dead
The vibrant personality he is, today he drives through the city on a scooter, fully taped in colours of red, brown, yellow, blue, orange, pink, green and maroon. To add to the bizarre sight, the headlights of his vehicle are always switched on during the day but are kept off at night. However, the number plate on his vehicle, which reads in Hindi — “Please follow traffic rules” — makes us believe that he's serious about safe driving.
Dukanji lives in the city's Daraganj area, on the way to the Sangam. His home is no less appetizing. He intends to convert it into the world’s strangest museum. But what would he store? Trash
They are lying on the floor, hanging from the ceiling, held against the walls, placed inside the cupboard, glued to the fan, pasted on the door and hidden under the bed. And the list is long and curious: hay balls, old wrappers, voodoo material, old trophies, thread balls, dolls, mirrors, chains, a huge dry pumpkin, tapes, old-fashioned Japanese cameras, medicine packets, the world’s smallest Gita and Quran, samples of all of India’s holy waters, old cigarette packets, classic flutes, shampoo bottles, a cluster of rings and earrings, rare stamps, old coins, posters, statues, books, nail cutters, paper plates, all the world’s flags, swords, shells, spoons, gramophone records, seeds, a variety of leaves and rocks of all sizes and composition, children’s toys from the 1980s and 90s, the shaving kit of poet Suryakant Nirala, Egyptian tamarind, around seven lakh photos and so on.
“We have fancy museums for the rich but nothing for the poor. So I decided to make one. These things I have, people no longer use. In a few decades, we will not see them. So I keep them.” However, Dukanji laments the lack of government support for his artistry and his ambitions to expand his room into a proper museum. What he also rues is not having any competition in his art.
As Dukanji speaks, his phone rings from time to time. “Everybody wants Dukanji! Even Dukanji forgets where he is to be felicitated today,” he bursts into an uncontrollable laughter.
But Dukanji is not all frivolity. He is also a social activist who leads from the front in any public awareness campaign, be it for AIDS, cancer, Save Ganga campaign, donating blood and eyes or body donation for medical research. He is also credited with initiating a self-drive to make the Ganga polythene free and has so far distributed three lakh pamphlets asking for the ban of the substance.
Currently, he is shooting for the promos for the Maha Kumbh Mela, adding to the 97 albums, few movies and television serials already to his credit. During the Mela, he will be seen marching up front with some of most revered sadhus. On a personal level, he never married nor contemplated migrating out of Allahabad. Incidentally, once while in Haryana he was mistaken for the sandalwood poacher Verrappan and taken into custody. The costumes and his ominous looking moustache are to blame, he says. “Sometimes people get scared.”
While he serves tea and hot pakoras, he lets run a video clip of one of his favourite performances on his mobile phone. However, it is interrupted by his ringtone: “Hello Honey Bunny... You are my pumpkin pumpkin...”