Dancing, jumping, singing; changing roles, attitude and acts at the drop of a hat... this is the stock-in-trade of the bahurupis, the folk cosplayers of Bengal who portray several hundred characters, most of them mythological, but some with social relevance. As we hurtle ever faster into modernity, the bahurupis belong to a bygone era.
Rabi Pandit, a bahurupi artist from West Bengal's Tarakeswar, however, is one of the few surviving practitioners of the art. He started off as a cosplayer when he was just eight.
"It was a Sunday, I clearly remember... I went out with my friend Bhaba. He made me dress up like God Shiva and we both headed towards a political rally. I posed just like Shiva does and extended my blessings to the neta who was seeking votes in the neighbourhood. That was my very first day as a bahurupi and I came back with Rs 700 in hand and my mother was very happy," Rabi recalls.
From that particular day, Rabi's performances as a bahurupi helped his mother in running the household. Rabi's mother worked as a domestic helper and found it hard to support her son's primary education.
Now Rabi is married, and is a father of three. The high cost of living means he works as a clown at birthday parties to supplement his bahurupi work. He also drives a goods vehicle part-time.
Rabi's home, Tarakeswar, is among the few places in West Bengal where bahurupis can still be found. The artistes — who once wandered freely through the state in previous decades — now mostly exist on the fringes of society.
The remaining artistes remember times when their performances drew huge crowds.
"I got a lot of love and immense popularity. The biggest reward for me was when a little girl addressed me as 'Shiv Thakur' and even introduced me to her father, a policeman," Rabi says.
Bahurupis these days may be found in districts like Birbhum, Purulia, Utter Dinajpur. Tarakeswar — just 60 km from Kolkata — has a bahurupi colony. Howrah Bridge or the Ganga ghats in Kolkata once saw many bahurupi performances; now, they tend to be restricted to special occasions like a Ram Navami or Charak festival or Dol Yatra (Holi).
Rabi was trained by his guru Kalipada Paul. "He passed away two years ago, but my guru instilled a lot of wisdom in each of us," Rabi says. "We would often be told that love and popularity would arrive along with the conviction we achieved (in our performances). This art form became my passion and a source of income even before I could understand (what it meant)."
Bahurupis accept offerings from people, but as Rabi points out: "You dress up, wander and accept people's love. But a bahurupi mustn't forget the thin line between accepting offerings and begging."
Ritwik Ghatak's 1965 film Subarnarekha introduced audiences outside Bengal to the art form of bahurupis. Later, writers, photographers and researchers became interested in documenting these artists.
"I have met journalists who won lakhs of prizes doing stories and documentaries on my life," says Rabi, wryly. "What did I receive? Nothing."
"Now, I am much more practical and ask for fees when I dress up for someone else," he adds.
Rabi is quite popular in his neighbourhood, and not just because of his costumes. He owns a motorised van, which is known as the 'ambulance'. Rabi ferried an unwell neighbour to the hospital late one night, in an emergency. Ever since "it has been unofficially available for my neighbours. Everyone knows during an emergency who to come to," he explains.
This is the life of Rabi, in pictures:
Rabi checks on his costume and make-up at a barbershop.