Coronavirus lockdown | No people, no show for folk artistes

Some of them have turned to odd jobs to survive pandemic.

August 23, 2020 11:39 pm | Updated 11:39 pm IST - New Delhi

Changing roles: Shamshad Beharupiya near a hoarding of the Surajkund Mela, featuring him as Krishna. Photo: Special Arrangement

Changing roles: Shamshad Beharupiya near a hoarding of the Surajkund Mela, featuring him as Krishna. Photo: Special Arrangement

The pandemic has forced Shamshad Beharupiya to play a different role these days. Every morning, he fills his cart with footwear and heads to villages near Bandikui town in Dausa district of Rajasthan to make ends meet.

At times, villagers taunt him and ask if he is the same Shamshad who dressed up as Ram at the invitation of the Yogi Adityanath government last year for the Deepotsav in Ayodhya or as Krishna, his favourite act, during the Haryana government’s 2019 Surajkund Mela, where he was the face of the festival.

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“They say ‘ Yeh kya Bhagwan theli par !’ (What is this, God pulling a cart!),” says Mr. Shamshad. With a lump in his throat, he explains that hunger will not wait. “It fills me with shame. But then some of them buy an extra pair just because they have been our yajmans (patrons),” he adds.

“This disease has dried up all art-related work,” says Mr. Shamshad. “Between the festivals, we used to go to our yajmans , who would pay us in cash or kind for putting up a show on the occasion of a birth, birthday or wedding. All that has become a thing of the past during the last four months.”

Family of performers

Mr. Shamshad comes from a family of beharupiyas — folk artistes who don various costumes to play figures from mythology, folklore and traditional stories — that once used to serve Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh of the erstwhile Jaipur kingdom. They are also said to have helped freedom fighters during the struggle for Independence.

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Mr. Shamshad’s father Shivraj Beharupiya, known for playing Lord Shiva, was selected by the Ministry of Culture to travel to different festivals in India and abroad.

When the rajas (kings) gave way to rajnetas (politicians), Shamshad says, his father travelled to Uttar Pradesh and other States with his acts. He and his five brothers carried forward the tradition, playing different characters from Hindu mythology and Mughal history. “For us, Ram, Krishna, Akbar, Majnu are iconic characters of our shared past. We play them with all sincerity but don’t take them home... like actors in films. And most of our benefactors respect it,” he explains.

But the lockdown since March this year has robbed the performers of a crucial tool — mobility.

Also read | How to support the arts during a pandemic

Reality checks

Shivram Nat, another street performer known for his aerial rope acts, first turned park keeper in the residential areas of Jaipur for survival but is now working as a labourer in a private construction company on the Jaipur-Udaipur road.

Hailing from a village near Bharatpur, Shivram used to perform in top hotels of Jaipur and Agra before the lockdown. Well-know and even having featured in the television show Hindustan Ke Hunarbaaz , the lockdown made Shivram realise that despite the fame and popularity, he hasn’t risen much on the social ladder.

“When my niece passed away, her body was taken down down from the funeral pyre in Kakarpura village of Agra as the Thakurs and the village pradhan objected. We had to take her body to another village more than seven kilometres.” It was only when the news went viral, says Shivram, that the district administration promised to allow the Nats to cremate their dead in the gram sabha cremation ground.

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Mahipal Sapera from a community of snake charmers, is keen on getting an MNREGS card made to tide over the lockdown. Son of a well-known snake charmer, Sheesha Nath, Mahipal says there was a time when their village on Badarpur border figured in every Delhi hotel’s must-visit list for foreign tourists. He says animal rights’ groups defanged their art by taking the snake out of the performance. “We can’t use them but we are still called when a snake is spotted in a residential area or somebody gets bitten in a village,” he says of their deep relationship with the reptile.

Left with only their beens, a wind instrument made from a bottle gourd and bamboo, Mahipal says people still call them to weddings. “The government takes us to festivals as some signposts of the past. But the lockdown has put a full stop to even that. Do you expect an artist to lift bricks? Will such a person find social acceptance?” he says, as he rushes to buy medicines for his father who is recovering from a heart attack.

Skill upgrade

Shailaja Kathuria, director of the Centre for New Perspectives (CNP), a non-profit working with street performers, says what they need is “creative dignity”. She feels the pandemic has proved harsher for street performers living in urban spaces as in rural areas the ties with patrons are still intact.

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The CNP has come up with a crowdfunding campaign to organise a virtual Tama Show wherein they are working with street performers to tell innovative picture book stories to children. Recently, dancer Arupa Lahiry performed a story, while a street magician performed an online ‘levitation’.

“We are also working with classical musicians and dancers to upscale their skills. Flautist Rajat Prasanna is working with the snake charmers to help them learn new tunes. We are trying to rope in an Uzbek acrobat who knows Hindi to train Shivram in developing floor acts, as he only knows aerial ones,” says Ms. Kathuria.

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The most important aspect, notes the CNP director, is that the sooner performing artistes think out of the box and shift from dependence on State patronage, the better. “And digital literacy and digitally innovative performances is an important cog in this process. We are approaching the Sangeet Natak Akademi to include their performances in their online calendar so that they could get regular work,” she says.

Both Shamshad and Junaid Rehman — son of street magician Rehman Shah — say they are up to the task as far as performing online is concerned. “I am now familiar with Zoom meetings, etc. and have put up a virtual show of levitation with my father,” says the high-school student, who meanwhile, is selling oranges to add to the family’s income during the pandemic.

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