Diwali marks Ram’s return to Ayodhya, victorious from the battle with Ravan. Ahead of the festival this year, we look at the many versions of the epic, which has shaped our culture, arts and politics. It is a splendidly various tradition, from the rationalism of the Jain Ramayana to the humour of the Mapilla Ramayanam. It is both a political ideal and a deeply personal experience. It is the mega-story that contains a multitude of narratives of India.
To the outrage of Sanskrit scholars, Tulsidas wrote the Ramayana in Awadhi, the language of the masses. From 600 years ago, the poet-saint of Ramcharitmanas still watches over the children of Varanasi. The holy town is made up of temples and customs. People come from all over India to wash away their sins in the waters of the Ganga, attain moksha or salvation or cremate a loved one.
Varanasi is also our home, just as it was for Tulsidas in the 15th century. To grow up with the Ramayana is to rise to the level of an epic poem. Ramcharitmanas has seeped into our bloodstream to such an extent that it shapes our normal activities. I don’t know of any other literary work that has decided the way of life for so many people.
As a child, when I went for a swim, my mother would ask me to bring home gangajal in a container. She would sprinkle a few drops into mouldy achaar and — I am not making this up — the pickle would be fine in a few days. Daras paras majjan aru paana, hara-i paap kah Bed Puraana (Water is that which one can see, touch, drink and clean with/ So say the Vedas and the Purana). This was written in the Ramcharitmanas long before water was compartmentalised in bottles and jars according to function and rivers became sewers.
My family has been living in Varanasi for 200 years and everybody gets together for the aarti in the evening. I used to play the tabla and sing chaupai from the Ramcharitmanas. That’s what I was doing when a Vedic scholar or Vyasji from the Mauni Baba Ramlila passed by our house one day. I was in Class VII and immersed in the verse I was singing. Vyasji was impressed and offered me the role of Ram in that year’s Ramlila.
Started by Tulsidas, the folk theatre presentations of the Ramayana before Dussehra is Varanasi’s living heritage. Around 25 Ramlila performances take place every year, with the most famous and oldest being Chitrakoot Ramlila, Mauni Baba Ramlila and Ramnagar ki Ramlila.
For children, Ramlila was a massive fairground where we bought toys and masks of Hanuman and rakshasas. The scenes on stage were as spectacular as the story of princes, demons, monkeys, gods, boons, curses and a war between good and evil. Ramlila sangeet is besura and defies logic as singers try to outdo modern electronic devices such as loudspeakers by raising their voices to a raucous pitch. It echoes in your ears long afterwards.
The lead actors of the Ramlila are boys, Brahmin and eloquent. This feudal practice ensures that nowhere on earth is casting more difficult for a play. Actors playing the main roles of Ram, Lakshman, Bharat and Sita undergo a month-long training. I lived in Vyasji’s house, ate only fruit, slept on a chatai on the floor and practised my movements. Present-day theatre is realising the importance of silences — they could learn a thing or two from Mauni Baba Ramlila that has almost no dialogue and emphasises physical movement.
We actors, called swaroop, spent hours getting dressed in our mythological finery. It was when we met the devotees that I really understood the power of myth in our daily lives. People I knew, including parents of my classmates, would unquestionably accept me as Bhagwan Ram, seek my blessings, wash my feet and drink the water.
Girls came close and sat with us. Three of us — Ram, Lakshman and Bharat — would bond over the ones we liked. Despite the sexual awakening, we were careful to stay in character in public. In private, we teased one another mercilessly. We didn’t let Hanuman or Sita in on our crushes as this secret was between brothers, but the others must have guessed. I began to notice that Sita, played by a boy according to custom, became possessive when I discussed girls. For weeks after the Ramlila, I had marks on my back and shoulders where Sita had bit me in jealous rage.
I had missed classes during the performance and this set me back in studies. An anti-syllabus attitude crept into me and grew into bigger questions about social, cultural and political structures of the world. Last year, I staged Ram Ki Shakti Puja in which girls played Ram, Lakshman and Bharat and their caste was immaterial. Based on a poem by Suryakanta Tripathi “Nirala”, the work shows Ram as unsure of winning the war, defeated even before the final battle with Ravana.
This was a human Ram, though he continues to wear a crown in the forest as a symbol of his divinity. I also began to ask why we have placed Ram on such a high pedestal that we fear engaging with him as a human. Have we thrust godliness on him? Why doesn’t modern theatre engage more with folk performances of Ramlila?
Tulsidas had set up akharas in Varanasi to train pehelwans who would defend his poetry while he challenged the status quo. Growing up with his Ramcharitmanas, we have also learned to question it.
(As told to Dipanita Nath)
Vyomesh Shukla is a Varanasi-based poet
*The story was originally published with the headline Learning to be Free
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines