Ramlila, a 10-day long play on the exploits of Lord Ram – which takes place every year during the Dusshera festival – could be seen as a mix of Shakespeare’s bunch of classics such as King Lear (exile), Macbeth (jealousy), The Merchant of Venice (swayamvar) and Henry VI (war).
Totally Shakespearean, it has love, jealousy, greed, lies, betrayal, revenge, war, death and redemption. Despite having all the flavours this epic play is breathing its last, confined to a few big venues in the city.
Ramlila is one of the most widely performed traditional art forms of north India. It has received considerable amount of global attention due to its diverse representation throughout, especially amongst the Indian diaspora. It is celebrated with much zeal and fervour in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi along with a few other states such as West Bengal and Odisha.
The most representative Ramlilas are those in Ayodhya, Ramnagar, Benares, Vrindavan, Almora, Satna and Madhubani.
The cycle of plays concludes with Diwali, the festival of light wherein an effigy of Ravana is burnt which signifies the victory of good over evil. As the name suggests, it depicts the life and journey of Lord Ram.
The story has been adapted from Tulsidas’ Ram Charit Manas as well as Valmiki’s Ramayana.
Rapid urbanisation, space crunch, fast moving lifestyle accompanied with inflation and budget shortage has marked an end to Ramlila in the capital and its adjacent areas.
For Delhi, Ramlila has been a centre of attraction during the festive season for years. There was a time when every narrow lane and mohalla of the state witnessed various enactment of Ramlila, which is now just a memory for its residents. “It is sad that in spite of it being one of the most popular and attractive modes of entertainment and preaching of idealism, the glorious traditional play is neglected in the State,” rued folklorist Anjana Batra, a teacher of History of Folk Arts at the National School of Drama (NSD), said.
Pointing out why Ramlila shows are not very popular in the state any longer and the number of Ramlila committees have rapidly dwindled, Batra added: “The massive construction in city has almost occupied all the places where small associations have been organising the epic play for centuries, the lack of interest among youth, fast moving lifestyle, and inflation caused the death of ‘Galiyon ki Ramlila’ in Delhi.”
“Nowadays, the play, which is being organised by big committees, where a sprawling VIP space is being provided to please only the elite audiences of the city, has marked a clear class division among the audiences. The common spectator has almost lost its connect from the epic play,” added Batra.
Another contemporary chronicler of Delhi, Firdaus Akhtar said, “Once upon a time, the capital city had as many as 1800 registered Ramlila committees, organising the play in and around the capital, but now only 300 committees are organising the play.” Akhtar blames westernisation and urbanisation for this reduction in the number of committees and extinction of the traditional performing art in the city.
“Urbanisation, often associated with modernisation, has meant that an urban Indian teen would hardly know anything about Mahabharata or Ramayana, or not know any mythology at all! Hence the Ramlila, with its perfect Hindi and folk-classical music will not excite a generation hooked on to their smartphones” Akhtar said.
Sonal Sharma, a writer on folk art, said: “The play is losing its sheen as low budget Ramlila committees are unable to spend money and end up compromising with the performance’s quality. The quality is deteriorating with fewer people interested in watching the ‘lazy’ play in the time of fast moving cinemas which is one of the reasons why Ramlila is vanishing.”
Sharma couldn’t hide her disappointment further and added: “The performance has hit such a low that Ramlila has to borrow vulgar songs from Hindi films as well as local music albums on which artists are forced to dance, this further reduces the epic play to a trivial comedy.”
“All is not lost; Ramlila still survives as an art form all over the world. A production which has money to support themselves, who have sponsors and pay their artist well, have kept the art alive. They keep the audience in thrall when they perform the known story with the conviction that brings catharsis and makes people believe in the performance,” the folklorist added.
Apart from other reasons, organisers in Delhi also say that nobody wants to work that hard for pittance.
Swaroop Jain, President of Virat Ramlila Committee, Karol Bagh said, “We are not very enthusiastic about holding grand Ramlilas because there is no appreciation of the effort in terms of publicity and gain.
That is also why no one wants to organise Ramlilas in the city,” adding, “We are not getting a fixed venue in the area, change in venue every year makes it difficult to carry on the play.”
According to the organisers, not having a permanent venue for every committee means that Ramlilas cannot become a permanent fixture in the city’s calendar. Almost 15 committees have already closed their shutters permanently in the area due to space crunch.
The Sangam Ramlila Committee of Preet Vihar, which started organising Ramlilas in the city in 1990, decided not to organise the play this year due to a lack of venue. Sanjeev Agrawal, General Secretary of the committee said: “Till 2011, the plot on which we were organising Ramlila was vacant but from past few years the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has started construction.”
“We used to have full-fledged Ramlila celebrations till last year on the DDA grounds, which was being organised since 20 years. Many organisers have decided to stop the play because the DDA has allotted the land to a private construction company and they are struggling to find an alternative venue,” disappointed residents of Preet Vihar told Millennium Post.
Interestingly, over time Ramlila has evolved as well. It has been trying hard to get a wider audience by changing its language, costumes, script and backdrops to stay relevant. Also, technology is being incorporated to the play to make it more attractive. The costumes too have been elaborately designed. They have been made more realistic, glittery and glamorous. The sets have become swankier.
The traditional Ramlila is adding a dash of Bollywood glamour to draw in the younger generation. While people are used to seeing local artists portraying Ram, Laxman, Sita and Ravan with oodles of make-up and flashy clothes,they are now getting to witness B-town actors taking centre stage at Ramlila events.
“All our epics have relevance in today’s modern age,” says Vivek Gautam, who is portraying Ravan as well as Dashrath, in one of the plays. “If you inculcate even a little of the values in the Ramayana, your life may change for good”, the actor added... And we agree!
''Ramlila which is being organised by big committees, where a sprawling VIP space is being provided to please only the elite audiences of the city have marked a clear class division among the audiences. The common spectator has almost disconnected from the epic play'' - Anjana Batra, Teacher, National School Of Drama.
''Ramlila still survives as an art form all over the world. It’s a production which has money to support themselves and pay their artist well. They’ve kept the art alive. They keep the audience in thrall when they perform stories with conviction bringing catharsis and making people believe in the performance'' - Sonal Sharma, Folklorist
''We are not very enthusiastic about holding grand Ramlilas because there is no appreciation of the effort in terms of publicity and gain. That is also why no one wants to organise Ramlilas in the city. We are not getting a fixed venue in the area which makes it difficult to carry on the play'' - Swaoop Jain, Virat Ramlila Committe