Updated: October 9, 2016 1:39 pm
In one of Delhi’s oldest Ramlilas, she has held one of the most important roles for five years now. Off stage, she is a college student pursuing English. Over 48 hours, photojournalist Abhinav Saha captures the transformation of Chandni into Sita
Prime ministers are known to come here, as are leaders of the Opposition and presidents. Every year, it attracts thousands of people for 10 days. Held on the Red Fort lawns since 1958, this is one of Delhi’s oldest Ramlilas, with claims of putting up the city’s tallest Ravana.
Chandni walks to the parlour with friend Sweety, who plays several roles in the Ramlila, such as of nagarwasi (citizen), daasi (servant) and sakhi (friend). Sweety lives in Noida
Chandni is 19, a Delhi University English Honours student, and is its Sita. Just 25-odd actors, most of them belonging to Moradabad — a town 160-odd km away —play all the characters of the Ramayana here, interchanging roles. Raj Rishi Sharma, a government employee, for example, has played both Dasarath and Ravana this time.
Chandni has 15 minutes to get into vanvas costume, and gets a hand from mother Sapna, who is playing Sita’s mother. Just before they take the stage, the ‘swaroops’ are worshipped and given a lemon each to tuck into clothes to ward off “evil spirits”
Bhawna Sharma, this Ramlila’s first Sita, played the character for “eight-nine years” — the longest so far, as per the organisers, the Nav Shri Dharmik Lila Committee.
Oct 5, 10.30 am, Chandni leaves Laxmi Narayan Dharmshala in Fatehpuri.
All the actors are put up here by the Nav Shri Dharmik Lila Committee, in around six rooms and a dormitory. The actors rehearse here from 10.30 am to 12.30 pm daily, and after lunch, must leave by 3 pm to get to the Red Fort nearby in time for the performance. Chandni is leaving early today as she has to go to a parlour to put mehndi for the swayamvar scene. She gets ‘Ram’ written on both her palms.
Backstage at the ground, as Chandni waits for her turn for makeup, an actor playing one of the kings in the Sita swayamvar takes a nap
“At the dharamshala where we stay, we actors live like family — we laugh, dance, sing and eat together. And every year, when we depart after the Ramlila, we cry, hoping to meet next year,” says Chandni.
It’s 10 am, October 6, and as Chandni waits for her turn to take a bath back at the dharamshala, she checks messages on her phone.
Chandni and Sweety eat plain Navratra Food provided by the Ramlila committee at their room. Her favourite drink, Chandni says, is soda shikanji (lemonade), and whenever they can, the two of them stop over at a kiosk on way to the Red Fort lawns to have a glass
Chandni has been Sita for five years now, encouraged by her makeup artist parents and her grandfather, who used to work for Doordarshan. She doesn’t accept any money for the role, she says, as she respects “Sita Mata”. She is a vegetarian, and doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol, Chandni clarifies.
Chandni’s father Shailender Kumar and mother Sapna apply Chandni and a co-actor’s makeup. They get all the actors ready for the show, and have been doing Chandni’s makeup from the start. Sapna, who says she is a leader of the Lok Janshakti Party, is also an actor. Kumar works with a TV channel as a make-up artist.
Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Bharat, Shatrughan and Hanuman as “swaroops”. Once they get into “swaroop”, or full costume, they can’t look in the mirror, use the phone or express any feelings, including hunger. They can’t be given any instruction, not even when people come seeking selfies or to touch their feet, including Chandni’s parents and co-actors. At the end of the day, they must look in the mirror, seek forgiveness for “mistakes”, and “thank god” for “giving them their swaroop”
The work keeps her so busy she can’t find time for her friends or boyfriend for the 10 days of the Ramlila. Chandni admits they all get angry, “every time”, and it’s she who has to always make up.
Backstage, a tailor is present at all times for last-minute repairs, and Chandni is getting a little restless as she gets her blouse fitted. Time is running out and she has to take the stage soon.
‘Sita’ and ‘Ram’ in ‘swaroop’ before getting onto the stage. Priom Gujjar, who plays Ram, is from Moradabad but moved to Mumbai two months ago to pursue an acting career. He has earlier played Lakshman, a sipahi (soldier) and Ravana’s son Akshay Kumar in the play. Today, they have been given crowns made of silver. The committee also has four gold crowns (for Ram, Sita, Laxman and Hanuman), but these are taken out only occasionally.
Around 1.15 am, Oct 7, the play finally wraps up, and Chandni leaves with her parents for the dharamshala. They have dinner there together before Shailender and Sapna leave for their Mayur Vihar Phase III home. They could have stayed over at the dharamshala too, but there are two dogs at home to take care of
Eventually, she hopes, the Sita role will lead to an acting career or at least a TV anchor job. When that happens, Chandni wants to be known as ‘Jennifer Kaif’ — her Facebook identity.