THE ORGANISERS of the Ram Leela at Aishbagh in Lucknow’s old city claim it is one of the oldest such events in the country, begun in the 16th century by none other than Tulsidas, who wrote the ‘Ramcharitmanas’. That may be real or apocryphal, but for the organisers, what is beyond doubt is that the annual event will get its biggest guest in independent India in another four days on Dussehra – when Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays what is expected to be an hour-long visit to witness its final, most exciting act: Ravan Vadh, or slaying of Ravan.
Four days to go, workers on Friday were busy putting together a new stage to replace the old one, which was partially damaged due to heavy showers earlier this week. With several pairs of hands painting the walls surrounding the nearly 3-bigha Ram Leela ground, masons put cement and plaster on damaged parts of the walls. Harishchandra Agarwal, the Ram Leela Samiti president, said although Governors, Union ministers and several Uttar Pradesh chief ministers, including Chaudhary Charan Singh, Chandra Bhanu Gupta and Kalyan Singh, have come to the Ram Leela, this is the first time a Prime Minister will visit. He said Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a former Lok Sabha MP from Lucknow, had come visiting before he had become the PM.
“I think we will complete the decorations by Saturday. Ram Leela is the story of a mahanayak (superhero) Lord Ram, and Modi-ji is this country’s nayak (hero),” a gushing Agarwal said. Interestingly, the popular final act – Ravan Vadh – has, for the first time, been advanced to 7 pm from the usual 10 pm or thereabouts to accommodate Modi’s schedule. Organising members said the execution of Meghnad, Ravan’s son, has also been advanced by a day so that only Ravana is ‘killed’ on Dussehra. So, in a ‘first’, Meghnad will die on the Navami day.
BJP vice-president and Lucknow mayor Dinesh Sharma, who examined the preparations today, said Modi has confirmed his visit between 6 and 7 pm on Tuesday. He said the prime minister will watch Ravana Vadh, but the demon king’s effigy will be burnt after he leaves. Talking about the beginning of the Aishbagh Ram Leela, Agarwal said, “In the 16th century, Tulsidas used to come here with several sadhus from Ayodhya and spend chaumasa (the four months of monsoon). Here, Tulsidas thought that although he had translated Valmiki’s Ramayana into Awadhi for more people to understand, it was still beyond the reach of the illiterate. So he performed Ram Leela – to let everyone comprehend it. It has been going on since then.”
In the 18th century, Agarwal said, the nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daula, had donated more than 3 bighas for the Ram Leela to be staged; a piece of land of similar size was given to the Eidgah across the road. “This Ramleela is thus a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity,” he said. With the recent terror attack in Uri in mind, Agarwal said the theme of the Ravan effigy-burning this year would be terrorism. It was cow slaughter, atrocities on women, and corruption in the last few years, he added.
A team of actors from Kolkata, which has been performing Ram Leela for the last 10 years, will perform the final act this year as well. “We have a small team, and an actor usually performs more than one role,” director Bhaskar Basu of the Kolkata-based Bhaskar Natya Kala Kendra said. But he added that despite the limitations, their performance is applauded each year. Ram Leela Samiti’s convenor Aditya Dwivedi said the arena has a capacity to house nearly 25,000 people but there will be fewer chairs for the audience due to security bandobast. He said LCD screens will be put up outside, where around 1 lakh people are expected to watch the performance.
IG (STF) Ram Kumar said they have received a tentative schedule of the prime minister’s visit and a security coordination meeting was held at the Secretariat on Friday. The Centre, he said, has provided four companies each of ITBP and RAF, and rest of the personnel will be drawn from state police.