The Ramlila of Ramnagar in Uttar Pradesh began in 1830 and survives unchanged.
The kasba of Ramnagar lies an hour by boat,upstream from Varanasi. A car can cut down the time by half despite roads as ribbed as the river. However you travel,every step towards this town takes you back in time to when the now-yellowed ruins were noblemens houses. For one month in autumn,you can even put a date to the era you have entered 19th century. From mid-September to Dussehra,Ramnagar hosts Ramlila in its own way or,more accurately,in an elaborate,ritualistic style introduced by king Udit Narayan Singh in 1830. The performances are held without mikes,electric lights or a stage and this is the least unusual part. Our Ramlila lasts 31 days and each step is marked by age-old customs. Nothing has changed,nothing is allowed to change, says JP Pathak,secretary to the current king,Anant Narayan Singh,and administrator of the Ramlila.
Pathak is aware that elsewhere in the country,Ramlila is typically held during Ramnavami,the nine holy days that lead to Dussehra,and the epic story of the Ramayana unfolds on a single stage on all days. In Ramnagar,different episodes are held at different venues,often spread a kilometre or more apart, he says. These venues are permanent addresses in town. Travel down the dirt roads and you pass landmarks such as Ayodhya (a football field-sized enclosed space near Ramnagar Fort,the royal residence),Lanka,(a vast ground that could house several football fields if the stones allowed it),Ashok Vatika (a raised ground above Lanka) and Janakpuri (a field with platforms for the swayamvara and wedding,also houses possibly Indias only temple with idols of all four brothers and their wives). Ponds are assigned roles and names,including one called Ganga,and most venues have cemented,white-washed daises for actors.
As the action shifts from one venue to another in an evening,a crowd of 10,000 moves with the gods,monkeys and demons,the proximity doing nothing to dampen their veneration for the bhagwan walking with them. It is Indias oldest form of promenade theatre, says theatre personality Anuradha Kapur,who wrote Actors,Pilgrims,Kings and Gods: The Ramlila of Ramnagar in 1990. At the new venue,the actors take their place on platforms or a clearing,and the audience squats on temple steps,rubble heaps,around wells and on open ground. The only ones to view the action from a height are Anant Narayan Singh,his family and officials,who sit on elephants,thus carrying forward the tradition of the king attending every performance on all days,except tragic scenes such as Ravan-vadh because a king should not watch the downfall of another king, says Pathak.
The 31-day performance (it began on September 18 this year) starts with the birth of Ravana and its related stories while the second day features a royal yajna,the birth of Rama and his brothers,Virat darshan and bal lila among others. “What’s interesting is that the acting of a part is preceded by the singing of that verse from Tulsidass Ramcharitmanas by a group of 12 singers and musicians called Ramayani. In the audience,people come with torches and copies of Ramcharitmanas and read the lines as the Ramayanis sing. The audience interacts with the performance at many different levels,” says Benil Biswas,assistant professor,Ambedkar University,Delhi,who is attending the shows with his students.
As the evening grows darker,Ramlila workers hang kerosene lanterns on bamboo poles around the stage,bathing the heroes and villains in light. Around them,for many yards,the only bright pinpricks are torches glowing like fireflies as people read. A short distance away from stage,amid the audience sit the Ramayanis,their saffron turbans illuminated by the naked flames of torches. According to local lore,Ramayanis can throw their voices far so that every person can hear them clearly,but a stooping,bow-legged old timer says the quality of singing has dipped. Today,one can hear the irregular rise and fall of their song from the end of the gathering but the words are inaudible.
Ramayanis such as Ramjanam Mishra,a 57-year-old advocate,trace the familys participation the Ramlila to several generations,and strains of my father was a part of the Leela and his father and his father are common when actors and performers speak about themselves. Swami Nath Pandey has been playing Ravana for 40 years and is now locally famous as Ravana maharaj. “My family has been a part of the Ramlila in different roles for years. Ravana may have been an epic villain but I am doing gods work by playing the role, says this silver-stubbled,balding man.
Significantly,the only ones who cannot fall back on bloodline are Nand Kishore Vyas,14,who plays Rama,Aditya Pandey,13,who plays Sita,and Purshottam Sharma,11,who is Lakshman in the play. These students of local schools were selected more than three months ago,after an audition judged by the king and his royal officials. It does not matter than I am playing a womans role,whats important is that I am playing a god, says Aditya,clad in a sari,jewellery and flowers. Seated in Ashok Vatika,he prepares to bless sadhus and the young and old devotees who touch his feet before performances.
These children are very different when they come,” says Shiv Dutt Sharma,a scholar of the scriptures,popularly known as Vyasji. He is a part of the family that has been training the young performers for generations. The boys are selected on the basis of bearing,beauty,vocals and seriousness among others, he says. The lead actors,called panchswaroop after the five main roles of the four brothers and Sita,are all below 14 and,according to Pathak,pure. For two months,they wake up around 4.30 am and spend several hours studying the epic and learning hand gestures and vocal skills. Games such as Ludo are allowed in the evenings but no running around and getting hurt, says Sharma,adding that Laksman is very naughty this year,but the others are serious about their Vedas. By the end of two months,the young performers are ready to assume the mantle of gods and at ease with their divinity.
The audience comes from across Varanasi,in families or groups,though one can spot a smattering of foreign tourists as well as scholars,anthropologists,filmmakers and theatre people from other parts of India. This year,there are fewer sadhus. Many sadhus fear public anger after the Asaram Bapu case and are staying away, says Pathak.
Hundreds of traditionalists among the local audience follow customs of their own washing themselves in the ghats or wells,wearing clean clothes,kajal,decorating their foreheads with chandan paste and teeka and rounding off with a round of bhang. It is a tradition similar to urban audiences getting ready for theatre,except that here the Ramlila is not theatre,it is the closest that people,mostly farmers,small traders and boatmen,come to their gods. They come every day,bringing with them a peeda to sit on,a torch,a Ramcharitmanas and an umbrella. It costs me quite a lot to travel here daily,but how can I stay away? says Amrit Lal Pandey,who was a Ramayani singer for four decades and still travels over 10 km to attend the month-long performance.
Once Vyasji shouts savdhan,shant raho,the audience takes the cue and quietens down to allow the performance to start. Their anger at violators of tradition is immense an errant cellphone ring triggers a chorus of reprimands and the erstwhile kings personal guards chase away anybody wielding cameras or camera phones. In this sacred performance,everything must be as it was 200 years ago.
As Ram begins his dialogues,a cheer of Jai Shri Ram goes up in the crowd. One or two scholars accompany the actors on stage with their copies of the epic to guide the actors with dialogues thus the prompters share space with actors in an unusual theatre convention.
Do not call this a drama, says Brijesh Kumar Tiwari,a 62 kushti champion who has been playing Hanuman for three years. The role has changed me. My lifelong determination to be honest turned into a spiritual conviction that I would not tell lies or accept dirty money, says this cop from Bihar. Has it been difficult? No, he replies,Isnt the Ramayana a story of the victory of good over evil?
Photos by Renuka Puri