For some mimicry is an art, for others just imitation, but for
Subhendu Biswas it is a science. The septuagenarian - who says
everything about him "is fake" - has not only penned a book on the
discipline but also launched a first-of-its-kind academy on
mimicry in India.
Biswas, 70, has been a 'harbola' or a mimicker for more than four
decades. Coined by Rabindranath Tagore, the term harbola is rooted
in the Bengali phrase "Harek rokom buli boley je" (one who speaks
"There are not many harbolas these days because where do you go to
learn the art? I have been into it for four decades but there is
neither any school nor a book on the discipline," he said.
"How can I let the art, which has given me everything, die?
Through my book and my academy, both of which I think are first of
their kinds in the country, if not in the world, I hope to revive
the waning performing art," said Biswas.
In his book "Harbola Shiksha O Natyashilper Proyog", which has an
introduction by late Tagore scholar from Japan Kazuo Azuma, Biswas
uses diagrams and figures to give in-depth details on how to mimic
"You cannot put in words the bark of a dog or the sound of a conch
shell. So I have made illustrations to show what portion of the
mouth, tongue or the throat is to be used and how," said the
Biswas got his training from Robin Bhattacharya, one of the
pioneers of the art form in the country.
"Bhattacharya got the title of harbola from Tagore himself after
he was fascinated to see a young boy of 10 effortlessly mimicking
bird cries in his garden. Blessed by Tagore, he went on to became
one of the best known exponents of the art," said Biswas.
Like his guru, the disciple too is now a well-known mimic,
performing all over the globe. In his maiden international
performance he won the gold award at the Toyama International
Youth Theatre Festival in Japan in 1989.
Talking about his West Bengal Harbola Academy, Biswas said: "I,
with my guru (Bhattacharya), had opened it in 1985 but very soon
it had to be closed for some unavoidable reasons. Now after a lot
of efforts it has been reopened and I hope through this
institution I will be able to spread the art among youngsters."
His shows are mostly comedy-based, but at times he also brings in
elements of reality in them.
"Last year I performed a small play in Bangladesh about the
devastation caused by the (cyclone) Aila (in 2009). It was about a
mother who lost her newly born child in the flood," he said.
"After the show, an elderly woman came to me and gave a Rs.5 note,
saying 'I had lost my grandson the way you just showed. I am happy
because through your show I got my baby back even if it was for a
few moments'," said the harbola, flashing the currency note, with
"It's a sad story, isn't it? Let me tell you a funny one," said
Biswas, narrating an incident when he acted like a man bitten by a
rabid dog and scared away a bunch of hooligans trying to occupy
his seat in a train.
"Everything about me is fake, my heart (uses a pacemaker), my
teeth, my black hair (dyed) and you can also say my art. You
cannot tell whether the bark you just heard was of a dog or mine!"
(Anurag Dey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)