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Behrupia by Amit Sharma
Reading time: about 7 minutes
About this series
In the vibrant tapestry of Indian performing arts, there exists a captivating form of entertainment known as Behrupia, a living art of illusion and tradition. Derived from the Hindi word "behroop," meaning "disguise" or "illusion," Behrupia is a centuries-old tradition of impersonation and mimicry that continues to enthral audiences across the nation. This unique art form involves skilled artists who adeptly transform themselves into various characters, ranging from historical figures to iconic personalities, animals, and even inanimate objects.
Behrupia acts as a bridge between the past and the future, connecting generations and reminding us of our shared cultural heritage. Once popular and widespread, the art form is now in decline with most practitioners living in poverty. In an era of rapid globalization, preserving such traditional art forms becomes vital in maintaining a sense of identity and fostering cultural pride. Photographer and artist Amit Sharma takes us on a journey of visual excesses and most importantly, makes a bold statement by conserving the captivating and transformative art form for generations to come on the blockchain.
The series brings history, entertainment, and education together, captivating audiences while fostering a sense of unity and cultural pride. By cherishing and preserving this rich tradition, Amit Sharma ensures that the legacy of Behrupia lives on, enchanting generations to come and reminding us of the beauty and diversity of Indian culture.
Throughout your artistic career, how has your creative process evolved, and what has been the most significant catalyst for change in your approach to art?
It's vital to establish the context of growing up in India in the 1980s in order to understand how my work has developed over the past three decades. I was still in my early teens when I got deeply interested in the camera as a machine, I was mainly interested in how to operate and what I could do with it. I got exposed to some western music and related imagery. Though it was very limited, it opened a window to something cool and free and there was a certain brashness that was very alluring to my very impressionable mind.
I started shooting stylistic portraits of people around me and being self taught and shooting on film in those days, the process was long and filled with a lot of hits and trials! But the seed was firmly planted and I was certainly determined to become a fashion photographer despite having no clear plan or schooling in photography. After nearly 10 years, I built my fashion portfolio and walked in with a suitcase to a magazines office and almost immediately my career took off. From 1999 to about 2008 I was very much into technicalities of image making and followed a very classical style in both my personal and commissioned work.
The second development in my work happened when I started watching world cinema. Majid Majidi and Abbas Kiarostami’s films were a major influence. The slowness of their approach, the depiction of reality and humanity made me aware of my own surroundings with a new sense of appreciation and curiosity.
And lastly, over the last five years or so the approach is more observational and philosophical. I am concentrating on hyper realism and challenging my own aesthetics. The focus is to amalgamate fine art and social documentary.
How do you believe capturing Behrupia performances through photography contributes to the preservation of this ancient art form's legacy?
Once extremely popular, these days one only gets a rare glimpse of the Behrupia in local fairs and festivals and mostly in smaller towns. Most of these artists are engaged in the art form through generations and are spread out very far and wide. Behrupia today, is dying vocation.
The modern people get DJs and TV screens to their functions and these artists make meagre earnings and are not motivated enough to pass it on or continue. They have never been captured in a classic portrait setting and that’s what is significant about this project. The typology approach preserves the art form in all its glory and visual high fidelity.
What challenges do you face as a photographer when trying to capture the essence and energy of Behrupia performances in still images?
The vastness and diversity of India ensures that there is a significant difference in the style and themes that these artists depict. To have them collect in one place and to have a consistent visual style was the biggest challenge. An opportunity came when when I was chosen to be a part of a festival, where these artists were called to perform from the remotest parts of India. I set up a portrait booth and had a team of assistants that helped with the coordination throughout the festival week.
In your opinion, what unique aspects of Behrupia can be conveyed through photographs that might not be as apparent in live performances?
One always gets a fleeting view of the Behrupia as they move and perform through the crowds. These portraits allowed me to separate and isolate them from the environment to solely focus on the details of the craft itself. I had to make a creative decision on wether to photograph them in a contemporary dead pan style or make them perform in a way that captures a unique aspect of the performance.
What role do you see your photographs playing in raising awareness about Behrupia and its importance in today's society?
I think there are two aspects to it. One is the visual preservation of a very important art form that pre-dates broadcast and secondly the cultural storytelling associated with these characters. Often the roles played are from mythology and pulp fiction which are unique to India. As the country and world at large progresses towards westernisation, the Behrupia culture and art form is an important reminder of our past and heritage.
Speaking about blockchain and NFTs. In the web3 space, the convergence of art and technology has opened up new possibilities for artists. How has this shift influenced your work, and what opportunities do you see for artists like yourself in the world of decentralized art?
The emergence of NFTs and web3 space has opened up huge possibilities in terms of exposure to global art and discoverability of the artists. In terms of influence, I have had a fresh input of ideas and concepts about what makes photography collectible. A global audience exposed to cultural and philosophical sensitisation is a big reason why I am here. The concept of provenance and having a timestamp is critical for our collective existence in the long run.
With the rapid evolution of technology and the growing influence of the web3 space, how do you maintain a balance between staying true to your artistic roots and embracing the possibilities of the digital art world?
We can clearly see the popularity and success of certain trends in the crypto art world and I am fine with all of that. But as an observer and social commentator my work has a distinct personal identity and it’s very important to not deviate from that. This documentation of personal narratives will prove to be valuable retrospectively.
An image is a perspective bound by light and the lack of it. To fully experience the image, is to see it and contemplate the idea that the artist had thrust or restrained, when a few leaves of metal turn audacious enough to bite a slice out of eternity.
Amit Sharma is a Delhi and Bangalore based photographer, working mainly in the field of lifestyle, advertising and travel photography. His clients include all major publications in Indiay and many national and international brands. Also, shooting street life and portraits has been his passion for over two decades now.
Sharma's images hint at different facets of his human experience, his ease of artistic collaboration and the vehement iconoclastic urges throbbing beneath the polished veneer of a practiced socialised existence.
Photos copyright Amit Sharma
DRAWLIGHTS | 1/1 – one post/one photographer, weekly. Off-chain and on-chain. By Peter Nitsch, lens-based artist, a member of NFT Now 🌐 and lifetime Member of the Royal Photographic Society of Thailand.