What could possibly have been in the artist’s consciousness in 1948? Who are these characters? Read on to know more.
Perhaps the artist imagined a subaltern space keeping in mind characters belonging to the Circus and/or the Theatre, particularly the Pantomime form. These spaces would be inhabited by the ragtag representing the counterculture of their time. Through the artist’s representations, we can meet performers donning various costumes and accessories as well as painting their faces and bodies to become different ‘characters’ that go on to entertain, sometimes, educate, through tricks and tales. In the Circus, there is usually a Ringmaster (the artist/creator) who directs the other performers in their various acts (the characters/ creations).
Historically, such performers have often been on the fringes of mainstream society – loved for their entertainment value and playfulness but not always respected as conduits of ‘high art’. Sometimes, they may be secretly feared for showing the ‘truth’ and holding up a mirror to society’s hypocrisy and foibles. Like Lear’s Fool who acts as the king’s protector and his conscience, pointing out the truth through humour and irony; or Birbal, Akbar’s court minister who, according to folklore, outwitted the Emperor and other courtiers through his sharp responses and observations; or Pierrot, the clown from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte/comedy of improvisation.
Some of the colours, costumes, and headgear are reminiscent of carnivals – traditionally, occasions where people gathered in public places to celebrate the arrival of Spring. At first, these Carnivals were pagan celebrations before being brought into the Christian mainstream. Masquerades were often a part of these celebrations. The faces in Gobardhan Ash’s work often look like masks rather than realistic human portraits. These may be interpreted as disguises to hide the real self or as highlighting a person’s essence.
Taking these thoughts together and filtering them through another lens, what comes to mind is the wandering, lonely figure of the ‘Bohurupi’ (literally meaning ‘many forms’). Bohurupis are folk performers in rural settings. They take on the appearance of mainly mythological characters, deities, and demons with the aid of accouterments like body paint, makeup, wigs, costumes, and a wide variety of props. Various permutation combinations of these tools (somewhat like the mix-and-match techniques used to create profile picture avatars) transform these performers into recognizable yet awe-inspiring figures, There is also a gender-fluidity in these performers – a Bohurupi can sometimes be Shiva (masculine), sometimes Kaali (feminine), at other times the eunuch Brihanalla. He is also a shape-shifter assuming animal forms and being able to produce appropriate corresponding sounds. A Bohurupi act is pretty much a one-man show with music and dramatic performance that has no fixed stage or platform. Bohurupis have been around for more than a hundred years and immortalised in literature. And the reality of these artists has been one of isolation and marginalisation.
There also appears to be a central theme (somewhat visible but largely intrinsic), a character (perhaps a young absent-minded village boy) who doesn’t conform to set rules and patterns of behaviour – a dreamer, an outsider, a rebel but original, imaginative, and unafraid. Perhaps he can read minds or foresee events in the future. A budding fortune-teller of sorts. Or he is in possession of a ‘magic’ mirror – people looking into it appear not as they are in reality but as their inner personalities. Initially, his contemporaries are told to stay away from him but soon he draws a few other, less adventurous misfits towards him and leads them, like the Pied Piper, to a commune of gypsies, acrobats, clowns, etc with their menagerie of animals who have set up temporary shop on the outskirts of the village. This band of performers is looked upon by the village folk with both suspicion and envy but welcomes this ragtag bunch of youngsters into their fold.
Where are we going with this ? Stay tuned ...