The people of Ramnagar proudly state that change creeps slowly into this town, if at all. In this small corner of Varanasi, far away from sculpted temples and holy ghats, the king or Kashi Naresh is still a supreme presence, second only to god. Once every year, Ramnagar stops being a slumbering town and transforms into a sprawling stage for a Ramlila that is unlike any other seen in India.
“Ramnagar ki Ramlila”, which Unesco labelled as an intangible heritage of India in 2004, is a 31-day enactment of the Ramayana in a style that was introduced almost 200 years ago. It has been taking place, without a break, every autumn since 1830. Now, for the first time, the tradition is being documented in film, by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in Delhi.
“All the places that have been referred to in the Ramayana are represented within the confines of Ramnagar. There are places with names such as Ayodhya, Lanka and Ashok Vatika, and there are separate areas for events like Sita’s swayamvara and various battles.
The Ramlila is opened by Kashi Naresh, who arrives on an elephant and is present on all 31 days. Imagine, around 20,000 people gathered together in wide open fields or walking together to watch the Ramlila,” says Basharata Ahmed, Chief Producer, adding that the cost of the project was around Rs 70 lakh and involved a 30-member team.
A group from the team carried out a recce last year before mapping the terrain and camera positions. Ramnagar ki Ramlila unfolds over many levels — actors in the main performance area; Ramayanis, a group of scholars that sits away from the stage and recites lines from the Ramcharitmanas before it is enacted; and the audience that comes dressed in washed clothes and chandan teekas for the occasion and read their own copies of Ramcharitmanas by torchlight while following the play. Since tradition is sacrosanct, no cameras, including cellphones, are allowed. No official documentary, other than another, shorter film made in 2004 by IGNCA, exists of the event.
“We had eight cameras, with one mounted on a crane exclusively to capture the audience and another fixed on the Ramayanis. Since we were documenting the tradition, we could not miss a scene or a dialogue so we had every aspect of the Ramlila covered,” says Sarabjeet Singh, Chief Cameraman. They team arrived on August 27 and began by filming the Ganesh Puja, a small hawan that marks the beginning of the event, and the making and repairing of masks and chariots of the Ramlila. The most challenging task, says Ahmed, was capturing the sounds because “no mikes are used and actors and prompters throw their voices live for audience”. The crew used cordless microphones as well as mikes with 100-metre-long cables to capture the chanting.
BS Rawat, one of the executive producers of the project, says, “It was important to document not only the events but also the incredible atmosphere. For instance, it is mandatory to have an aarti at the end of every day’s performance even if it is raining. We noticed that the crowd would triple during the aarti and I would get goose pimples as I watched their faces. I remember watching Hanuman do the aarti with a single diya as a crowd of 60,000 watched.” There were other salient features, too — the effigies have been built by Muslim families since the first Ramlila and the audience contains a large segment of Muslims from the area. The cameras have captured the process of selecting local students to play the lead roles of Ramayana’s heroes and their training. “The children are referred to as Ramji and Lakshmanji and Sitaji from the first day by everybody, including Vyasji, their teacher. We also saw that the King had arranged for a tutor so that the children don’t miss out on what is being taught in regular schools,” says Singh.
The crew battled rain and dim lighting (the only lights allowed during performances are from Petromax lamps that are hung on bamboo poles around the central stage), spoke to scholars and locals to put on screen an incredible story. After 40 days and 35 locations, the team arrived in Delhi on Thursday with around 100 hours of footage. The next six months will be spent in editing and post-production work, and plans are underway to screen the film on DD Bharti in time for next year’s Ramlila. The raw footage will be available for researchers. “Everything around us is changing, so it is important to document traditions that still exist,”