Through time most societies have had a figure of a jester, court fool or vidushak. His job was to both praise and mock the king. But, praise would often be so exaggerated as to feel ludicrous. And humour might often be so outrageous as to be insulting. The jester had to be both careful and clever, because crossing the line too far would result in punishment. But, the king too had to be careful. If he were to eager to believe the praise, he would be revealed as a puffed up fool. Too quick to take offence and he would reveal himself as an intolerant fascist, rather than statesman.
In India, bhands, a performing tribe, and behrupiyas, were an important part of the culture. While bhands carry out performances, behrupiyas make performance a part of the everyday. For instance they might dress as mythic characters they like or a figure from every day life. And, they would walk around like it’s the most natural thing among regular folk. Even if people laugh, they stay in character. So, like with the king, they provide a mirror to our selves and to the idea of what is natural and what is performed. Our reaction to them, reveals us to ourselves and the world.
While traditional behrupiyas struggle to survive today, the need for the behrupiya nevertheless exists, for the behrupiya slyly questions what is presented to us as an absolute truth and raises the question that there may well be another way, even if we don’t know what it is.
Arvind Kejriwal has lately caused confusion after dinner parties because he seems to present no concrete possibility of governance. Yet, his contribution to political culture has been quite like the behrupiya’s.
His costume is carefully composed: a Gandhi topi, RK Laxman’s common man moustache and glasses, laced with a clown’s sense of the ridiculous – coloured socks and a scarf+topi headdress of the sort favoured by flight attendants on Emirates airlines – all worn absolutely deadpan. He walks about in this naturalistic costume, partly making our own idea of ourselves as aam aadmis a little absurd. But most interestingly of late, as behrupiya performer to Modi’s Saheb.
Unlike Kejriwal’s very naturalistic costume, Modi has always preferred the mask. It’s like he has a natural supply of botox from within so unmoving and unmoved is his visage whether speaking of genocide or development. Soon it becomes hard to tell the man from the waxworks and masks his fans so favour.
In keeping with this mask like self, Mr Modi also does not like to submit to being questioned — to have to respond to an unknown script. He avoids any forum where he will have to respond as a person rather than as a concept and thus hopes to preserve his performance as a looming super size superman with a chhappan chhati. In short, he refuses to engage.
Enter, the behrupiya. Arvind Kejriwal announces he will fight Modi in Varanasi, inducing, somehow, a little giggle. He goes to Gujarat on a little development sightseeing. Whatever happens, he stays in character, earnest and confused by the brouhaha until the response of Modi’s administration seems absurd. Like a mime artist, Kejriwal cheerfully retweets the insults of Modi’s followers making them look, well, bad at best.
And, like the pompous and intolerant kings of past, Modi too has been too quick to react, revealing himself and also, being forced to come down to normal life-size level.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a joke. But it’s worth remembering, that the joker changes how you can play the hand.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.