“YOU NEED to feel like Ram if you are going to enact him,” explains Sumit Khetan (27) who plays Ram in the ‘Shri Ram Manasmanch’ group which performs Ramleela in Malad every Navaratri. For the ten days, Sumit says he does not visit a Hanuman temple, to portray Lord Ram’s character. “It is a responsible job. I am Lord Ram for the ten days of the Ramleela that is performed at Malad West by our group for devotees. Thus, I need to feel and behave like Ram before I even take up this responsibility. Immediately after I put on make-up and get into the character, I am what people make out of me,” Khetan said.
With almost 60 artistes in the team, organisers claim that at the end of each session, artistes find devotees at their feet seeking blessings. Devotees gather to receive Baas (presence) of their deities, especially from the three artistes playing the characters of Ram, Sita and Laxman. “This is an age-old tradition. People each year, who flock to our Ram Leela, get blessed and cleansed upon touching the artistes’ feet. For the ten days, once the artistes are in their characters, they need to come alive as deities as imagined or worshipped by devotees,” said Rajesh Rastogi,organiser of Manasmanch group. Thus, choosing artistes to portray each role turns out to be a challenge, Rastogi claimed.
While the common practice has been to employ kids of the current artistes, they follow certain rules for the same. “People portraying roles of Ram, Laxman in our group should be earnest and religious. While casting one, I make sure they have innocent faces and are pleasant enough to attract the crowd. They must also be God-loving, religious and not indulge in any wrong act that goes against dharma,” Rastogi added.
For 35 years, the Manasmanch team of artistes have been visiting from Muradabad, Uttar Pradesh to Shivaji Chowk, Malad West, where Ram Leela is performed by different groups. Believing this stage gives them the maximum chance to showcase the shraddha (devotion) towards the deity, makes their trip to Mumbai compulsory for the artistes. “The oragnisers of Ram Leela here give us better liberty financially and otherwise to stage a better act. We also get a chance to stick to the traditional way of doing things than infusing unwanted additions for frills,” he added. For so many years, Rastogi claimed, the use of pure Hindi and strict implementation of the Ramayan story as written by Tulsidas and Valmiki makes their group superior.
“Our Ram-Leela is more of authenticity than nautanki (drama). Without adding unnecessary songs or mixture of languages, we portray the truth. We also know of cases where many people have expressed to offer help to our Ram Leela act and have received divine blessings,” Rastogi said. While every Ramleela artiste is not a professional actor, each comes two months before the festival. Though earning money never remains the aim, securing a better future for themselves through involvement in religious acts does.
“Overcoming all challenges, our team comes together to stage the story of the victory of good over evil. For the ten days, we try to help deliver Lord’s message to the umpteen believers of the practice. We believe that doing so will help us cleanse our sins and make the rest of the year happy and fruitful for us and our loved ones,” Rastogi added.