The legendary character of ‘behroopia’ (masquerader) has been an integral part of Lahore’s culture for ages. Of late, though, it has disappeared from the scene.
He used to be a person who would guise himself as different people every time, so impeccably that even the cleverest of us couldn’t tell he was impersonating.
He would reach a location dressed as a particular character, observe the situation, and create a scene with his ‘histrionics’ that would invoke a natural response from his ‘audience’ — the people around. The more professional a behroopia was, the more spontaneous and natural would be the response of the public.
After eliciting the desired reaction, the behroopia would then disclose his identity and salute the people around him who he had earlier made the target of his pranks. No one seemed to take any offence at all. On the contrary, the people would give him a round of applause. They would also give him some money, in recognition of his outstanding ‘performance.’
Ghulam Ahmed Raza, 60, a resident of Fatehgarh, Lahore, recalls how he had grown up in the 1960s and ‘70s chasing and being chased by behroopias who were dressed as blood-soaked maniacs carrying bricks in their hands.
Typically, he says, the “behroopia would rush towards a person unaware of his presence, and make him run for his life at the very sight of someone darting a brick at him as if he was going to hit him. However, he would play such pranks in the streets and areas that were free of fast-moving traffic.”
Raza tells TNS that behroopias had written permission from the local administration that they showed in case they landed in some precarious situation. “On occasion, they would even wear the uniform of a police officer and begin to interrogate the people going around. They had the flair to copy the mannerisms perfectly.”
He cites an instance where a behroopia dressed as a senior police officer reached a ‘thana’ and started inquiring the low-ranking staff. “The staff immediately rose from their seats, saluted him, and presented the official records, only to find out later that he was just a poser.
“They burst into laughter after the disclosure. You cannot imagine such a thing happening in this day, can you?” he asks. “It could lead to registration of a criminal case.”
Renowned Punjabi scholar Saeed Bhutta says the behroopias used to be the popular source of entertainment, especially in villages. He recalls how in his native town Pindi Bhattian, the members of Basha tribe would mostly turn into behroopias, “This art was passed on through generations.”
Bhutta says that one common prank in the villages would be the behroopia coming to a gathering, sitting there for some time, and then raising an alarm about the presence of a snake there. “The villagers would jump in different directions and trip over each other, or fall on the ground, with their clothes torn at different places.
“On realising what had just happened, they would stand up, wipe off dust from their clothes, and laugh at their response to behroopia’s false alarm.”
For his part, the behroopia would put a hand on his heart, take a bow, and expect a reward for his ‘show.’
Bhutta laments the fact that there is no space for such a character in today’s times, as nobody has the tolerance to enjoy such jokes. Besides, “masquerading can be a security risk and the person doing so can face threats even to his life.
“The behroopias are no more an attraction, in the presence of so many modern means of entertainment, and because of people living increasingly in-door lives. The same is the case with other South Asian countries such as India where the concept of assuming the attires of characters from, say, Mahabharata used to be quite common. The behroopias playing these roles are mostly without work now.”