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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Tale of two Delhi Ramlilas: One that went ahead, one where Covid took centrestage

For the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, this year’s Ramlila was a determined leap of faith. For Mehrauli’s Classic Ramlila, the pandemic’s pressures proved too much.

Written by Yashee | New Delhi | Updated: October 28, 2020 1:17:07 am
ramlila, ramlilas in delhi, ramlila 2020, delhi ramlila 2020, mehrauli ramlila, Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Shobha Deepak Singh, delhi news, indian expressThe dance-drama ‘Shri Ram’, being staged at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra Lawns from October 17 to October 27. (Express photo: Amit Mehra)

On stage at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra Lawns –– one of the few Delhi venues staging a live Ramlila this year –– an irate Kaikeyi is dancing. Incensed at the prospect of being second to Kausalya, she rips off a baajuband and tosses it away. Next to go is a necklace. The ornaments fall off the stage, where someone discreetly picks them up.

In the Covid-conscious audience, there are gasps. It is difficult to not think of the contact this has resulted in –– dancer to floor to someone else’s hands. Similar discomfort is palpable when Bharat slides across the stage to fall at Ram’s feet.

Also Read | From the banks of Yamuna, socially distanced Ramlila premieres on YouTube

The performers and the show’s director-choreographer, however, maintain they took all precautions.

Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK) has been staging its dance-drama ‘Shri Ram’ for 64 years now. This time, while Covid-19 put a question mark on the live event, the institute’s director and choreographer of the drama, Padma Shri Shobha Deepak Singh, was certain the show must go on. “Rehearsals began in July, online. We decided if we don’t get permission to stage it, we will put the Ramlila on YouTube,” Singh says.

Permission came just days before the actual event. By now, the performers had rehearsed to perfection. What does it take to put up a play during a pandemic? Was there any fear, panic?

Singh says: “We can’t let fear put our lives on hold. I was certain we could take all precautions and still put up the show. We have our own costumes and the stage is within the institute’s premises, so those were advantages. But of course some things were different. I don’t like our performances recorded. This time, three cameras would film each performer.”

All the costumes, jewellery, props –– crowns, swords, Jatayu’s wings –– were sanitised before and after use. Everyone connected with the dance had Covid tests done, in September, and again just before the live event started on the first day of Navratri.

ramlila, ramlilas in delhi, ramlila 2020, delhi ramlila 2020, mehrauli ramlila, Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Shobha Deepak Singh, delhi news, indian express Ram with his three brothers — and weapons that had to be sanitised before the show. (Express photo: Amit Mehra)

For the audience, face masks and temperature screening are compulsory. Two seats are vacant between each viewer, with a cap at 100 people. The show is beautiful. As Ram breaks the dhanush and marries Sita, an audience member grips her chair. Once the spell breaks, she quickly sanitises her hands.

Between Ram’s exile and the beginning of vanvaas, there’s a break. In the green rooms, performers busily change for the next act. Aren’t they afraid, sharing space like this?

“While we were on stage, every item in here was sanitised,” says Madhvi Mohanta, who plays Sita. “We are performers, we were missing the stage. Also, we can count on each other to take precautions. We have been students together at SBKK, so there is a comfort level.”

“Yeah, Kaikeyi here is from Bangladesh. But she came to SBKK, and now she is married to Raavan,” one of the dancers offers.

ramlila, ramlilas in delhi, ramlila 2020, delhi ramlila 2020, mehrauli ramlila, Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Shobha Deepak Singh, delhi news, indian express King Dashrath tries to placate Queen Kaikeyi, played by Suchita Das Tithi from Bangladesh. (Express photo: Amit Mehra)

It wasn’t just the performers who had to take precautions. The person responsible for the beautifully lit stage, Gyandev Singh, ensured extra care. “All our equipment was sanitised. We worked with fewer people to minimise risk. It was difficult.”

So why did he do it?

Gyandev, recipient of the Sangeet Natak Academy’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Award, says he had good reason. “The pandemic is a dark and difficult time. Art brings light. We hope the successful, safe run of this show will set the ball rolling for cultural events to resume in the capital.”

“Oh, there is one more difference the pandemic caused,” laughs Singh. “We were able to afford Gyandev.”

Mehrauli misses the bonding of Ramlila

Far from SBKK’s lawns in Copernicus Marg is Ward No.1 of Mehrauli, where Classic Ramlila, the annual Dussehra event, has been cancelled. This means loss in more ways than one: a teenaged boy has lost the chance to magically gain height. “We pick a boy with a small build to play Sita. But whoever plays the role becomes impressively tall within a few years,” says Neeraj, in charge of the actors’ make-up.

The Classic Ramlila has been performed since the early 1990s. It was stopped for a few years after the Delhi blasts in 1997, but resumed again on popular demand. However, this year, say the Ramlila members, the risk was just too great.

ramlila, ramlilas in delhi, ramlila 2020, delhi ramlila 2020, mehrauli ramlila, Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Shobha Deepak Singh, delhi news, indian express Ram and Kumbhkaran take a selfie after last year’s performance. (Photo courtesy: Bharat Kumar)

“Permission to perform was hard to come by this year. But then again, there was no way we could guarantee that only 100 people would turn up at a time. Or that everyone would wear masks. One can’t ensure such things in old neighbourhoods like ours,” says Bharat Kumar, who plays Ram.

Classic Ramlila is a labour of love, says Kumar. The performers all hold other jobs, but during Navratri, their lives revolve around the Ramlila, cleaning the stage in the afternoon, organsing Mata ki aarti, and then staging the show, that goes on till late in the night. There are no ticket prices, contributions are voluntary. “Ensuring litres of sanitisers and temperature screening devices was not a practical proposition for us,” says Paras, who plays Kevat, Shravan Kumar, and Vibhishan too, if the situation so demands.

Also, the Ramlila here involves social contact different from the more formal set-up at SBKK. “When Hanuman jee destroys Lanka’s Ashok Vatika, he throws the fruits to the viewers (actual fruits are bought for this). When Taraka comes on stage, she pretends to snatch children from among the audience,” says Jitendra Kumar, who plays Taraka and other demons, as needed.

Could they have opted for a more restrained show this time? “Where’s the fun in that?” questions Lokesh Dutt, the Ramlila manager.

The members take pride in their Ramlila. It is so popular, they aver, that people come to watch this over the bigger, fancier show in the area. Ramji’s son, the Class 3 student Naksh, offers evidence. “Even people my age remain awake till the show is over. It is so good our parents allow us to stay out.”

ramlila, ramlilas in delhi, ramlila 2020, delhi ramlila 2020, mehrauli ramlila, Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Shobha Deepak Singh, delhi news, indian express Ram and Laxman last year with a vaanar, played by Ayaan Ahmed from the neighbourhood. (Photo courtesy: Bharat Kumar)

This year, the performers are sad they won’t be able to display their prowess. “We, of course, miss being on stage, the preparations, the on-spot improvisations. But more than that, we miss the bonding festival the Ramlila eventually becomes. People from all faiths are welcome. All year long, we are busy with our lives. But during navratri, the whole neighbourhood comes out, people catch up with each other. Relationships are refreshed,” says Bharat Kumar.

Covid precautions would have meant restricting all this. Also, the Ramlila is a local economy booster, with tea and snack sellers doing good business. Coronavirus safety guidelines would require all that done away with. “The Ramlila would be rendered lackluster, while the risk would have been enormous. It was better to not go ahead at all,” says Paras.

“The saving grace is that IPL is on,” says Lokesh Dutt. “Stay home and watch players behind the screen. The only entertainment we can safely afford with this year’s Raavan, the pandemic.”

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