Nomadic Bodies, Performed Pasts and Place-making: The Manyness of the Bahurupi

in Overview
Published on: 31 December 2019

Priya V.

Priya V. is an independent researcher based in Bengaluru, India. She has a PhD from the Institute of English, University of Kerala. Priya is working on her first book which is a recuperated representation of the devadasi communities of Kerala elided from the state's official histories and cultural common sense.

Bahurupis of Karnataka, demarcated as OBC under the state’s census reports, are itinerant performers of hagalu vesha[1] or pagati vesha[2]. Predominantly acted out by the male members of the community[3], theirs is an orally passed down musical tradition nurtured and guarded within the families of the performers.

Impersonating mythological and social characters, they stage amusing episodes to entertain, enlighten and, at times, comment on daily affairs.[4] While a sizeable number of this scattered band of performers belongs to the Lingayat community, they are also said to have Muslim performers in their midst. Bahurupis are known by various names such as ‘sadhus of the cemetery’[5] and budga jangalu—‘budga’[6] being their traditional percussion instrument which seems to have been replaced by the tabla now.

Since they are a nomadic community without permanent homes, they often lack identification documents and cannot avail official support systems. In a world where entertainment variables have seen a sea change, they end up doing odd jobs like selling plastic knick-knacks and begging for support. And yet, some bahurupi performers like Chennappa Ganachari and Maruti Ganachari of Balehosur, persist in sticking to what they understand as their vocation. 

Chennappa and his family of six members live in a tent pitched behind a park in Shahapur, Belgaum. They spend their mornings wandering around the streets of Belgaum, singing songs from their inherited repertory and seeking alms in return. Some days, people listen to them, on others, they are shooed away. During Dasara, Deepavali or at the beginning of the harvest season, they perform chosen episodes from the Puranas. They also perform dramatic acts that sometimes include non-mythological characters of a particular caste or a social representative like a poleesu (police), collecting whatever is offered to them as remuneration.

There is very little archival information on bahurupis of Karnataka. The few available anthropological records of them only cement the anachronistic impression that a cursory encounter with the costumed bahurupis might bring. A culturally sensitive immersion in some of the songs and stories from the repertory of bahurupis compiled by Yelanadu Anjinapa[7] provides us a better sense of their practices. The oldest of these songs simply titled ‘Gangamma, Gowramma’ stages a long repartee between the two wives of Shiva. As the poem progresses, it reveals Gowri’s sense of revulsion for the Ganga’s caste, lower in comparison in the social hierarchy:

‘Listen to my words, Gowri sister,

I did not come to please.

I did not come to get attached.

Shiva who brought you, brought me too!

I married and I came,

You don’t have to argue with me.

You don’t have to fight with me.’

Hearing these words, Gowramma became enraged.

‘Shiva, did you hear the words of Ganga?

Listen to your little wife!

See your adorable wife’s words!

Can’t you leave one amongst the two?’…


‘Heinous Ganga has become important!

Ganga who left her relatives and came.

Don’t get attached to my share of Shiva!

Ganga who sells fish and crocodile

Ganga who sells vegetables in the market!

You came for my share of Shiva.

Stay with her, Swami, I’ll leave.’

‘You brought heinous Ganga

and put her up for argument.

Both of you stay in this hermitage.’…


Gangavva giggles.

Bursts out laughing the hellish Ganga!

‘I saw the creed of my older sister now!

I saw her cleverness now!

She scolds me about selling fish.

Scolds me saying I am wicked!

I see the creed of my older sister…’[8]

The song proceeds to the climactic turn of events when Ganga holds back all life-sustaining water and Gowri, struggling to survive, pleads for forgiveness. It ends with Gowri agreeing to Shiva and Ganga’s wedding. Both Ganga and Gowri are expected to stick to ‘wifely’ deportment. And yet, it shrewdly, though indirectly, depicts the otherwise unutterable dehumanisation of casteist othering. The dirt that is located in the body of Ganga, the sensorial revulsion which makes Gowri cover her nose in her vicinity is not just a matter of myth. When in the guise of Ganga, the performer repeatedly mentions that she sees Gowri’s ‘creed’, it is a seeing that escapes the confines of the performed story.

Another song from their repertory called ‘Hen’s Song’, captures in fabular mode the contradiction to ‘seeing’ which is self-blinding. A hen goes on denying the torture inflicted on her by clucking about it in flowery euphemisms: while its feathers are pulled apart, its body chopped to pieces, marinated in spices and dunked in boiling water, it thinks it is being massaged, smeared with sandal paste and kept warm against the cold. When it's half-chewed bones are picked up by an eagle, it lulls itself into believing that this is how it would finally see heaven. There seems to be no redemption in sight for those who refuse to see.

A partial prose piece interspersed with rhyming verse where the actor appears in the costume of a Brahmin, lampoons him for his gluttony and selfishness; the piece muses on various kinds of sins and appropriate punishments for sinners in a form that shrewdly mimics the couplet and adage style of Sanskrit chants.[9] What is remarkable about this formal imitation is that in the place of adulation offered to a god which narrates his virtues and feats, we have an enumeration of the Brahmin’s vices! Further, the title of this piece, Dagalubaji Buddhi, refers to the eponymous character is another instance of sarcastic parody. Buddhi[10] roughly meaning ‘intelligence’ or ‘knowledge’ is commonly used in Kannada to represent Brahmins as custodians of knowledge. ‘Dagalubaji’, a word with Telugu roots, means a rogue or a cunning person. Thus the formal parody of Sanskrit chanting not only pokes fun at the pedantic airs and inherited habits of Brahmins, it also insinuates that for all his knowledge, he is still a rogue. The rhyme scheme further, is broken only at the very end where the backhanded ‘praises’ culminate in a pointed assertion that in spite of his knowledge, he disrespects the Lingayat saint Basava. The piece ends with the Brahmin drowning in a river, with the acknowledgment that he has incurred on himself a heap of sins. The rationalisation which caps this story goes thus: ‘We come empty-handed when we are born and we leave empty-handed when we die. That’s all life is.’

Similarly, other short prose pieces caricature representatives of particular communities for their indolence, pride or greed; the Vaddera Vesha (In a Mason’s Costume) which unravels the mason as a lazy, garrulous person is a good example. Two long prose pieces with female protagonists, simply titled ‘Chinnamma’s Story’ and ‘Lakshmamma’s Story’, portray their titular characters as virtuous women, who for no fault of their own, become victims of circumstances. ‘Chinnamma’s Story’ is further significant for staging the antagonism between followers of Shaiva and Vaishnava creeds where the sympathies of the bahurupis seem to be with the latter as vivified dramatically in the popular Mohini-Bhasmasura play too, an iconic item in their repertory.

A work that needs to be discussed along with these two prose works with female protagonists is a short play titled ‘Bairagi Vesha’ (In a Monk’s Costume). The monk here is approached by a 12-year-old girl who claims that she too is a monk. He proceeds to mock her striking a holier-than-thou attitude that being a monk is not exactly a woman’s business. The girl rebuts with a pithy statement: ‘All the bhakti in men has been examined/observed by women.’ The monk taunts her saying as an unmarried 12-year-old girl, she has no experience, and hence no knowledge of the world and advises her to get married, have children and then seek asceticism. The girl now pointedly asks him if the twelfth-century saint-poet Akka Mahadevi[11] was not an ascetic. The man relents but also insinuates that if not a husband, she must necessarily have a guru, and asks her to return in the evening, furtively implying that he expects sexual favours in return. What follows is a reply in verse from the girl, where she repeatedly denies the need of a guru and questions the logic of being immersed in worldly affairs in one’s youth and embracing asceticism in old age, clearly referring to the alternative located in the example of Akka Mahadevi. The monk confronts her with his moralistic preaching that the world is not saved by women. The play ends with what is perhaps an exasperated aside by the monk: ‘Woman is not ordinary. The background of a woman is immense. Didn’t Mahabharata happen due to Draupadi? When it is so, what is the fate of a monk like me? Hail Seetharam!’

A number of parables featuring animals illustrate how the shrewd exploit the naivety and susceptibility to superstitions among common folk. This brief look at the repertory of bahurupis may be capped with a description of a song that takes a mischievous meta-narrative look at themselves as performers. Alluringly titled ‘The Whole Ramayana for Buttermilk’, it depicts a bunch of bahurupis who are asked to narrate the entire epic in return for a bowl of buttermilk with which they had hoped to have a late lunch after a long day’s work. Their pleadings that they have to eat are ignored, and one of them agrees to recite Ramayana in entirety. In 10 lines, he mentions some of the major episodes of Ramayana, and states that whatever has been recited defines the epic. He manages to trick the lady into giving him that much-longed-for buttermilk.

The repertory of the bahurupis is not a rebellious carnival that overhauls prevalent social structure. It does not offer alternatives, it is almost as if there are marked niches for people slotted into their particular collective identities of caste, class and gender. More than one story depicts suffering dumped on women for no fault of their own. They are suspiciously regarded by their Brahmin/upper-caste husbands and punished for adulteries they did not commit. A wife serving food to another man affords enough fodder to the husband to accuse her of adultery. Gendered expectations of virtue persist and there seems to be no arena outside of marriage, and everything it implies in casteist patriarchy for women, except that of asceticism. It is tempting to read the play Bairagi Vesha as redolent of a feminist pulse, and yet the vagueness of the piece which ends abruptly with no closure, with the conniving monk’s words of exasperation, leaves questions dangling in the air.

As scripts that circulate among a community pooling together as a haphazard repertory for performance, it would be a mistake to read the piece in isolation. These texts need to be seen as being in conversation with other bahurupi texts—for instance, ‘Chinnamma’s Story’ and ‘Lakshmamma’s Story’—with female protagonists. Even the arena of asceticism as an alternative space for women does not come easy to women. One remembers how popular hagiographies of female bhakti poets, unlike those of the male poets, are full of narrative strategies adopted to bypass their beauty and/or youth.[12] 'Bairagi Vesha' seems to voice the social anxieties the mere entry of a 12-year-old into asceticism can incite. Here again, we find the same stress on virtuous commitment, and the narrative foregrounding of gendered virtue seeks to steal from the rebellious spirit of the girl. Further, the feminine virtue that is demanded of the girl is such that she is asked to find her gendered destiny and associated knowledge by attaching herself to either a husband or a guru, in the latter’s case the monk also insinuates sexual favour in return— the youthful female body thus becomes both a problem and a furtive advantage to the monk for whom showing virtuous allegiance means sexual compliance. The girl’s open rejection of the need for a guru, which also runs counter to the general reliance on a teacher in the Lingayat tradition, scandalises the monk. It is in what he is unable to say that the power of the piece lies, i.e., the social tension the girl’s calm vehemence sparks. What is, however, interesting is that the repertory carves out a space where this can be addressed and not glossed over. In that sense, the moralistic speech delivered by the monk certainly conveys more than it says. It reverberates with the unease the daughters of the likes of Akka Mahadevi have continued to incite. Thus, while not always as an overt feminist and anti-caste defiance like we know today, the bahurupi oeuvre carves out a space where oppressive structures can be questioned and not overridden.

Perhaps these are small discounts in a system that otherwise holds on to the status quo: the Brahmins remain the ones who can curse and there are always disenfranchised bodies who would bear their wrath. But the Brahmin can be mocked, just as the monk can be shown as a manipulator who even as he quotes Basava, is unable to live up to the ideal in the mystic’s words.

Bahurupi performances are marked by wit as well as a melancholic musing on suffering which gets unjustly meted out to the common folk by those in power. The songs and stories have a penchant for obsessive reflections on sin, right conduct for various entities and what happens when the idealistic course of events gets disturbed. Informants from the community say that when the bahurupis perform a ‘humorous’ play which features an actor in the garb of a policeman chasing a criminal who scares people around with a bloody knife, the entire village takes part in the chase. The play becomes truer to its etymology here, it is also ‘playing around’ where the invisible separation between the actor and the audience ceases to matter.[13] The texts generally strike out experiential affiliations to those who endure extreme misery for no fault of their own, whether located in the realm of myth or that of the ‘real’. It is possible to imagine the appeal such entertainment and edification must have had in another time when the very idea of entertainment spelt something else. The ironic laughter aimed at casteist subjugation and those who culturally enforced it must have worked as a release when such avenues for introspection, let alone remedial action, did not exist.

The location of the bahurupis as budga jangalu and falling within the Lingayat community deserves mention here. Unlike bahurupis elsewhere, being mendicant-entertainers who are followers of Basava, their relationship with Brahminical hegemony and caste has multiple implications. It is in this sense that they stop being just itinerant mouthpieces of ancient myth. It would perhaps suffice to mention here that public intellectuals, like M. M. Kalburgi, had repeatedly represented[14] the identity of Lingayats as contrary to Brahminical Hinduism, unlike the Veerasaivas. The open assertion by a representative of the budga performers that they owe their identity to Kalburgi[15] and that their performance repertory has been historically vehicles of Basava’s teachings, offers us a pointer towards what bureaucratic summations of bahurupi performance practices do not say.

The bodies of the oppressed are cleaved to make space for upper-caste sacrality, but the embodied conversation between them and the spaces around cannot be predetermined. To watch the bahurupis walk around and perform at random venues, is to experience first-hand what movement does to space.[16] The walk becomes a loop. Trinkets jangle as bare feet clomp dry ground, as rhythmic movement melding with the plaintive drone of harmonium resuscitates ancient myth; they use these to question injustices enforced by societal norms and offer pronouncements on human affairs and still later shed skins as it were, to retreat to their everyday bodies. To watch them come full circle is to witness a conjuring act—of nomadic performing bodies sucking back to life a ghostly terrain unmoored from topography simply by persisting in what they understand as their vocation. What it seems to precipitate is a ghostly space[17] which comes to life only as long as they continue to amble around in costume and perform. It is also a ghostly space since common sense, which we are habituated to place outside critical scrutiny, has already declared it a non-place. It is a conjuring act further because such performativity of moving bodies also cracks open the everyday politics by which non-places, and hence non-entities are ceaselessly produced. Cultural remembering is also a matter of selective forgetting, if not dismembering.[18] But bodies, right in their fragilities have a way of finding their way out of the cultural backyard and attempting an affective animation of tremulous, even though temporary, space-times back to life. Space and time spiral out of the spatiotemporal practices of the performing body, otherwise truncated by history and modernity. Certainly, everyday politics also possess exorcising acts which can roll back such ghostly space into mundane geography. This is precisely why their persistence in performance is a fundamentally creative act. To embrace the tag of itinerant artists is how they thwart the accusation of being full-time beggars. Artists-beggars-gods: the manyness of the bahurupi needs to be read as a profoundly poignant survival tactic. Watching them become and un-become the characters they perform is also a lesson in why emotions are, not just etymologically, motions.

[1] ‘Hagalu’ in Kannada means daytime and ‘Vesha’ means costume/performance.

[2] Can mean headgear, here it refers to their costuming.

[3] There are mentions and pictures of women from the community taking part in their performance. However, many from the community categorically denied this. Perhaps, it was not a common practice and it dwindled away with time.

[4] Informants from the community largely stuck to descriptions of mythological characters that they impersonate and mentioned only a few social characters. Yelanadu Anjinappa who compiled a collection of the extant texts used for performance, however, mentions that the repertory ‘had a particular getup for every caste, except for the goldsmith and the farmer.’ Anjinappa, Hagaluveshadavara Samskruti.

[5] Sattva, ‘Folk Dances of Karnataka.’ I have not been able to locate any contemporary Muslim performer from this community, nor was I able to arrive at any other reference or an explanation that connects the bahurupi mendicant performer to the cemetery.

[6] Anjinappa, Hagaluveshadavara Samskruti. Yelanadu Anjinappa gives the following description: ‘Their most important traditional instrument is the ‘budga’. A wide cavity is covered with hide and the smaller one is left open on the other side and a brass pipe fixed in the centre. This is the budga.’

[7] Anjinappa, Hagaluveshadavara Samskruti. Yelanadu Anjinappa compiled several songs and stories used by bahurupis in their performance, which had been scattered among various families of performers of North Karnataka. He however, acknowledges that the compilation he undertook was by no means exhaustive and that there are a lot of other items in their repertory yet to be documented. My reading of the songs and stories compiled by Anjinappa attempts to establish the critique of caste and brahmanism, as well as an introspection of gender that underplays their repertory.

[8] All translations of the songs and stories from their repertory used for this study has been done by Ms. Ammel Sharon, a researcher and translator based in Mangalore and Ms. Nanditha Nagraj, a Kannadiga businesswoman. I have also frequently consulted with a few friends, including my interlocutor, Jayaditya Vittal, a final year BA literature student, who helped me converse with the bahurupis. This project would not have been possible without the help of these three people.

[9] Gratitude to my translator and interlocutor for directing my attention to the significance of this particular form.

[10] I owe it to Jayaditya Vittal for alerting me to the colloquial implications of this name which would have escaped my attention otherwise.

[11] A twelfth-century female poet and saint whose vachanas (free verse poems) have a prominent place in the Lingayat ideology towards devotion.

[12] Chakaravarti, ‘The World of the Bhaktin in South Indian Traditions: The Body and Beyond.’

[13] One wonders if the hunter-criminal also represents an untouchable who has grown violent. If so, the chase is more than pastime and marked by a collective clampdown on the dehumanised outcaste body. But then, this generic character is also identified as Bedara Kannappa, a revered mythical personage to the bahurupis in whose unadulterated devotion, they locate an epitome. The grammar of performance texts needs to be readdressed here as an ongoing conversation between the actor/s and those who are entitled by caste, class and gender to watch the performance.

[14] Scattered in his commentaries on Vachana literature.

[15] Malagi, 'We owe our identity to Kalburgi: Budga-Beda Jangama.'

[16] ‘Space is actuated by the movements deployed within it.’ Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 117. 

[17] Drawn from Derridean notions of the ‘revenant’, the apparition that begins by coming back, and ‘hauntology’ instead of ontology. Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International.

[18] Bhabha. ‘Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition.’

Anjinappa, Yalanadu. Hagaluveshadavara Samskruti. Bangalore: Karnataka Sahitya Academy, 1993.

Bhabha, Homi. ‘Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition.’ In Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader, edited  by Laura Christman and Patrick Williams. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.

Chakaravarti, Uma. ‘The World of the Bhaktin in South Indian Traditions: The Body and Beyond.’ In Everyday Lives, Everyday Histories: Beyond the Kings and Brahmanas of Ancient India. New Delhi: Tulika Publishers, 2006.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkley: University of California Press, 1984. 

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Malagi, Shivakumar G. 'We owe our identity to Kalburgi: Budga-Beda Jangama.' Deccan Chronicle, Bengaluru, September 3, 2015.

Sattva, Moda. ‘Folk Dances of Karnataka.’ Story of Kannadiga, Kannada and Karnataka. 2008. Accessed December 25, 2019.