When this writer arrived in Delhi in 1960, the metropolis was a small place. Its major annual event, second only to Diwali, was Ramleela. For Delhi and its adjoining states, Dussehra meant Ramleela. Most people in Delhi’s galis and mohallas had not even heard of Durga Puja, Vijaya Dashami and garba. Kashmiri Gate had a Durga Puja, largely patronised by the Bengali probashis. Schools in Delhi used to have a 10-day Ramleela holiday. The city’s streets would come alive during that time. Festoons would appear all over the mohalla and, by evening, excited children would revel in the novelty of the petromax light.
The beauty of yesteryear’s folk Ramleela was its simplicity and local flavour. All actors were from the neighbourhood. One day, we were surprised to know that the boy from Garhwal, who was our domestic aide, was ‘Sita’ in the local Ramleela. The fruit-seller was Hanuman. A tailor who worked at the INA market played Ram’s role. The troupe would begin rehearsals a week or two before the show. All materials — the costumes, crowns, gadas and curtains — were crafted by local talents or friends from other colonies. They had no funds to procure expensive costumes from the galis of Chandni Chowk. But they created gods and demons with such materials as old cloth, papier mache, flattened cartons and bamboo sticks. Some mohallas would improvise and use the veranda of the primary school for the show. But most others had the “stage” on the ground. The tentwalla donated material to cover its three sides. By the mid-’70s, there appeared a new “technology” — jute bags stitched together as curtains.
The whole neighbourhood gathered to watch the portrayal of the great epic on the stage, which was seen as a religious duty. Entire families, old and ailing, women with babies in arms, set out from their homes soon after sunset. The crowd would take up the vantage points for the show, and, as families unpacked their homemade snacks the elders would tell the children to hurry up. “You should not eat while gods appear on the stage.”
“Shri Ramchandra ki jai…” the crowd would shout as the loudspeakers began blaring the first bhakti songs from films. Soon, the committee convener would proceed to the stage: he would announce the list of donors and thank them and order the children to sit down. As the show began, the first to appear on the stage would be the joker. Some with painted faces, and some dressed as Charlie Chaplin. The local school teacher, playing the joker, would enter the stage and ask the audience: “Who has the strongest teeth?” The crowd would guess: “Lion, elephant, rat…” Then the joker would answer: “White ants. They eat up hard wood which even the elephants cannot.”
Hanuman was arguably the most popular character. Almost all the mohalla boys used to be drafted into Ram’s army. Parents considered sending their boys to the vanar sena as a sort of offering to the deity. Actors on the stage would frequently shout out the dialogues while behind the make-shift stage, “Sita” smoked a beedi. The demon king would often be helping Jatayu fix his wings and beak before the entry.
After every scene, the convener appeared with more announcements. He would read from a paper: “Halwai Kishan Chand ne Sita ki patra ko do rupia inam diya. Dhanyawad.’ Sita, in her costumes, would appear on the stage amidst great applause.
The pre-’90s generation would have noticed the deep impression the 10-day exposition had on the children. The boys, mostly, would go on to mimic the Ramleela characters long after the show ended. Boys with paper gadas and tails fashioned from ropes were a common sight. They jumped high like Hanuman and roared like Ravan, repeating the war cries between the god and demons. All this lasted would last for weeks.
Last year, I went around some of the old Ramleela galis. Four-storey buildings have replaced the old tenements. Eateries and welding shops have filled the chowk. Finally, we spotted Tiwariji sitting on a charpoy. The head of an old Ramleela committee, who also doubled as Lakshman on stage back in the day, Tiwariji is the only survivor to recollect the glories of the lost theatre. The “Sita” of his Ramleela production had gone back to his — ‘her’ if you will — village in Kumaon. “Ram” had settled in an unauthorised colony, but died of old age last winter. “Hanuman,” who became an auto driver, died in an accident.
On the evening of Ashtami, according to the Bengali tradition, Ram goes to Goddess Durga to seek her blessings before killing Ravana. This ritual display of the superiority of the most powerful non-Aryan goddess over the Kshatriya god-king has been proved prophetic. Now, Durga has arguably overwhelmed Ramleela with puja pandals sprouting across the capital — largely a post-1990 phenomenon.
Some regional Ramleelas with big budgets survive, but only as relics. After Ramanand Sagar’s TV series, Ramayana, the aspiring elite started to look down on local productions. Old mohallas, now with “smart” crowds and different aspirations — TVs and mobiles take up much of their time —are disinterested.
But some questions about the old Ramleelas remain unanswered. Who wrote the dialogues of this now lost folk theatre form and who was responsible for the impressive choreography? How did a universal version of the folk Ram katha become a part of the popular culture in large parts of north India over centuries? Has anyone done any serious research on this once vibrant art form?