Rediscovering The Ramayana

My Fulbright Experience in India

21 October
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Ramlila Adventures in Delhi

Hey Dosto,

Happy Holidays! It’s a major festival time all over India right now. The celebration of Navaratri started on Tuesday and will end on the 23rd. Durga Pooja began on Saturday and this coming Wednesday is the major holiday Dussehra. This is also the time when Ramlila theatre is performed throughout North India.

This week I was originally planning to attend the performances of Ram by the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Prior to this week, I had assumed that Ram was a 30-day long Ramlila, like the Ramlila at Ramnagar. However, after hearing from a friend on Sunday that performances of Ram were sold out until the 26th of October (they actually aren’t, in case you’re interested), having a mini heart attack, and frantically contacting Mrs. Shobha Deepak Singh, I found out that Ram is a 2 hour and 45 minute long performance of The Ramayana that runs for a month. The same show is performed every day.

I felt like a COMPLETE idiot after finding out this information. But after beating myself up for being so stupid, I realized that my mistake was actually a blessing in disguise. Earlier when I had thought Ram was a 30-day performance, I had been a bit worried knowing that I would have to miss 6 days of the performance for my cousin’s upcoming wedding next week. Now I won’t be missing anything!

More importantly, this gave me the chance to catch other Ramlilas in the Delhi area that follow the traditional ten-day Ramlila format that most Ramlila performances in North India follow. Although my research focuses on “modern” or “contemporary” theatrical versions of The Ramayana that are performed on a classic proscenium stage, I think it is also very important to experience and investigate these “traditional” Ramlila performances as well. 

As the article in the Hindustan Times (below) notes, the Delhi/NCR region has been “gripped with Ramlila mania”. You can read the article online here.

Ramlila Mania!

This week I visited four different Ramlila performance spaces in the Delhi Area on three different days. Attending these Ramlila performances was an eye-opening experience.

Day 1 of the Ramlila

On Tuesday, I decided to brave the streets of Old Delhi with my friend Shivani and try to catch one of the famous Ramlila performances in the vicinity of the Red Fort. There are three Ramlila committees that perform around the Red Fort: The Shri Dharmik Leela Committee (located opposite the Red Fort), the Luv Kush Ram Lila Committee (located on the Red Fort Grounds), and the Nav Shri Dharmik Leela Committee (located on the Red Fort Lawns). Shivani and I walked around all three of these Ramlila grounds and were able to get a feel for all of them. Each of the grounds consisted on an elevated stage for the performance, carts and stalls with vendors selling all sorts of crafts, toys, food and drinks, and typical carnival rides.

Shri Dharmik Leela Committee Grounds

Haldirams: An Official Sponsor of the Ramlila

Ferris Wheel

One of the food stalls at the Nav Shri Dharmic Leela Committee’s Ramlila

Red Fort in the background of the Ramlila grounds

Unlike the Ramlila at Ramnagar, there are chairs and seats set up at these Ramlilas in front of the stage. Shivani and I decided to watch the Ramlila by the Luv Kush Ram Lila Committee, however all the seats were taken so we sat on a carpet on the sidelines of the performance space with some other families. There were probably around 8,000 people at this Ramlila. However, everything at the Ramlila was very organized and it felt like I was at a very organized carnival/outdoor concert. In fact, there were many young couples and families at the Ramlila who brought their own blankets and dinner as if they were on a picnic! It was actually really cute to see how excited the kids at the Ramlila were to see some of their favorite characters and heroes.

Spectators at the Ramlila

Before the actual performance started, Shivani and I witnessed an event in front of the Ramlila stage in which people came up and gave testimony about a certain spiritual teacher they called “Gurudev” had enhanced and improved their lives. Some people talked about he had apparently cured their illnesses like dengue and malaria, while others spoke about how he had reunited their estranged families. I think this “Gurudev” person had donated a large amount of money to the committee.

Poster featuring the Gurudev figure

After the testimonies were given, a group of live musicians came onto to the stage and started singing a series of bhajans in praise of Ram. Following the singing, an actor dressed as the Hindu deity Ganesha and two actresses dressed as his wives, Siddhi (“perfection”) and Riddhi (“knowledge), came on stage and members of the Luv Kush Ram Lila Committee began to conduct a Ganesha Vandana prayer. It is considered auspicious to begin performances with a prayer to Ganesha since he is believed to be the remover of obstacles.

After this prayer, I decided to leave with Shivani since I didn’t want to get home too late. I had told my driver to meet Shivani and I at a certain time where he had dropped us off. However, when Shivani and I reached the parking spot where my driver had dropped us off, he was no where to be seen! I tried calling him multiple times but his phone seemed to be switched off. Shivani and I searched for him for about twenty minutes but had no luck finding him. In the end, Shivani and I ended up taking two cycle rickshaws and the Metro to my cousin Nikhil and he dropped us home. Later that night I found out that my driver had also been trying to call me but couldn’t reach me. We later deduced that the large number of people in Old Delhi might have interfered with my driver’s phone network and thus he couldn’t receive or make calls.

I really need to thank my Uncle Ravi, Nikhil and Shivani for keeping me calm during this whole situation and helping me get through it. If Shivani hadn’t been with me, I’m pretty sure I would have had a full-fledged panic attack. Old Delhi is known for being a pretty dangerous neighborhood, especially for single, young women, and especially at night. Don’t get me wrong, Old Delhi is an incredible place with an amazing history, fantastic stores, and some of the best kebabs I’ve ever tasted. However, don’t go there alone! One of the most famous areas of Old Delhi is Chor Bazaar, which literally means “Thieves Market”!  You need to always be careful in Old Delhi. Nevertheless, I’m really glad that I went through this experience with Shivani, because now I’ll have a good idea about what to do if I’m ever alone and get separated from my driver again.

Day 2 of the Ramlila

Remember how I said that on the first day of the Ramlila, that it felt like “a very organized carnival/outdoor concert”? I wish I could say the same thing about my second day at the Ramlila.

On Wednesday, I went to the Luv Kush Ramlila in Old Delhi again. This time I went with my two fellow Delhi Fulbrighters, Professor Singh and Natassia. Instead of taking my car, we decided to meet at Lajpat Nagar and take the Metro to Old Delhi. I knew my driver would be able to find parking there and that he would have phone service there, so I thought this would be a much safer option.

When Professor Singh, Natassia and I reached the Luv Kush Ramlila grounds, I suddenly realized that the situation was COMPLETELY different from the day before. The grounds were completely packed. It looked like all the seats were taken and people were literally sitting anywhere they could find space. I almost suggested that we cross the street and try the Ramlila at the Shri Dharmik Leela Committee grounds, but then Professor Singh decided started to make her way to the front of the stage. I love Professor Singh. She is such a passionate and brave woman. She motioned to Natassia and I, and led us to area of the grounds where some of the best seats are. When some of the committee employees tried to stop her, she just confidently told them that Natassia and I were university students and they let us in! We managed to find three pretty great seats.

Luv Kush Ramlila Committee Stage

On this day of the Ramlila, episodes from Ram’s childhood and teenage years were being shown. We were able to see Ram and his brother Lakshman battle and defeat three different demons under the tutelage of their guru the sage Vishwamitra. The performance was really fascinating. Unlike in Ramnagar, the actors playing Ram and Lakshman were adults. They also didn’t speak their own dialogues. Instead they performed, while a pre-recorded track was played in the background. I soon began to be able to tell whenever a demon was about to come on stage by the loud maniacal laugh that could be heard before the demon entered. Every time a demon was killed, it was interesting to note that instead of falling down or pretending to die, the actor playing the demon would simply just walk off stage! However, this didn’t seem to bother the audience members around me. After the murder of each demon, one of the Luv Kush Ram Lila Committee members would lead the audience in chanting “Bolo Shri Ramachandra Ki Jai!” (“Praise Lord Ram!”) and all the audience members would raise both of their arms in unison. Their devotion to Ram was clearly evident.

Audience members saying “Jai Shri Ram!”

After this episode from Ram’s life, a group of musicians on stage began to sing a number of bhajans. What I found incredibly interesting was the fact that all the bhajans were not in praise of Ram. In fact, one of the bhajans consisted entirely of the phrase “Allah Hu Akbar” (“God is Great”), and another bhajan was the Sikh “Ik Onkar”, the opening phrase of the Guru Granth Sahib. The singer also led everyone in chanting “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai- Sab Bhai Hai, Bhai, Bhai!” (“Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians are brothers”. I was pleasantly surprised by all of this. It showed that the Luv Kush Ram Lila Committee was making an effort to be pluralistic and tolerant of other religious traditions. In fact, although the audience was clearly composed of people mostly from a Hindu background, there were quite a few Muslim and Sikh audience members as well. I was sitting next to a very nice Sikh family who had come from Punjab to Delhi just for this Ramlila.

However, I should also note that during the performance, a man also lead the audience in a clearly Hindu chant that consisted of the words “Gang Ram Ah Shri Namah Shivay”. When I noticed that my fellow audience members were glaring at me when I didn’t participate in the chanting, I felt very uncomfortable. It felt a bit like peer pressure.

Like the night before, I wanted to leave early. With Professor Singh leading the way, we left our seats. However in the two hours that passed since we had taken our seats, the number of people at the Ramlila had doubled. It was impossible to move without shoving or bumping into another person. Natassia and I almost tripped a number of times and people sitting on the ground had to reach out and help us regain our balance. When the three of us finally got out of the seating area and reached the main path, I thought it would now be easier to leave. I was wrong.

As we neared the main entrance, the number of people began to swell again. A few people like us were trying to leave the grounds, but there were thousands of more people trying to get to the seating area to see the performance. Once again Natassia and I found ourselves being pushed, shoved, elbowed and bumped. I grabbed Natassia’s hand and we tried to follow Professor Singh and push our way to the entrance. However no matter how hard we tried to move forward, we couldn’t. Then Professor Singh got the idea to move off the main path and into the sidelines where people were sitting on the ground. This seemed to work (although I kept on tripping over people and almost fell a number of times), but then about ten feet away from where Natassia and I were, two men began to yell and shout at each other. One of the men began to shove the other one. The other man became furious and pulled out a huge stick that looked like a cricket bat and started swinging it at the other man. Two women (one of whom was holding a small baby!) jumped between the men and tried to break up the fight. However, most of the people around me (teenage boys and young men) began to whistle, cheer and edge the men on. Professor Singh after seeing what was happening, immediately grabbed one of my hands
(I was holding Natassia’s hand with my other hand) and tried to pull us away from the fight.  I thought a riot was going to break out. I was terrified to say the least. Finally, Professor Singh managed to lead us though the rowdy crowd to the main entrance.

However, we found that the main entrance’s gate had been closed. Hundreds of more people were trying to get into the Ramlila. The policemen and army officers at the gate refused to let us leave through the main entrance because they knew people would try to sneak in while we left. Professor Singh quickly led Natassia and I to the back of the Ramlila grounds which faced the Red Fort. There was another entrance to the Ramlila here but like the main entrance, tons of people were trying to get into the grounds. Professor Singh and I started to plead with the police officers to let us go. While we were doing this, a mob of people to our left managed to tip over one of the police barrier gates and they started to ran into the Ramlila grounds. After seeing this, I literally grabbed the bars on one of the gates at the exit and in my most melo-dramtic Bollywood voice cried out to the police officers, “PLEASE! HUMKO JANE DIJIYE!” (“Please let us leave!”). I guess all my years of watching Bollywood movies paid off, because the police officers let Professor Singh, Natassia, and I out. It had taken us at least 45 minutes to get out of the Ramlila grounds. We quickly left the Red Fort area, found an auto, and headed back to Lajpat Nagar.

This one of the most scary experiences in my life. I’ve never seen so many people in one space at one time. On the auto ride home, the auto driver commented that he had never seen the Ramlila grounds so crowded before. Professor Singh, Natassia, and I soon figured out why there had been so many people at the Ramlila. That night, Hema Malini, one of the most famous Bollywood actresses of yester-year, was scheduled to perform. Since the event was free, most of the audience members were probably taking advantage of the fact that they could see one of Bollywood’s biggest stars for nothing.  I’ve also heard that the Ramlilas at Old Delhi are usually packed. But I’m not sure if the Ramlila would have been so crowded if Hema Malini wasn’t there.

Poster advertising Hema Malini’s performance

Regardless, I don’t think I’ll be going back to a Ramlila in Old Delhi anytime soon. Although I throughly enjoyed the performance that night, I was extremely disturbed and scared by the violence of the crowds I saw that night.

Day 3 of the Ramlila

On Thursday, my friend Noor and I decided to check out the Dwarka Shri Ramlila Committee’s Ramlila in Sector Ten of Dwarka (a sub-city of Delhi). Like the Ramlilas in Old Delhi, this Ramlila featured food stalls and carnival rides. However, the Ramlila in Dwarka was much calmer and more peaceful than the Ramlilas in Old Delhi. Noor and I walked around quite a bit and bought some delicious (and authentic!) South Indian dosas. More importantly, we also each got our very own sets of bows and arrows just like Ram! Noor also got a mace just like the one Hanuman carries. This was INTEGRAL to my field research. ;)

I am Katniss Everdeen. Or Robin Hood. Take your pick.

After playing with our new weapons, Noor and I decided to act like adults and sit down. Noor and I found great seats right in front of the stage. I thought this stage was one of the most beautiful Ramlila stages I’ve seen. It was covered with images very similar to the ones found in traditional Hindu calendar art. There were images of different Hindu deities as well as pictures of devotees of Ram and Sita. In the beginning of the performance, three dancers came on stage and did a beautiful Kathak (a classical Indian dance form from North India) piece in praise of Ganesha. After this wonderful dance,  the three actors playing Ram, Sita, and Lakshman came on stage and the committee members began to conduct an aarti prayer  ritual while a group of musicians who were sitting in the equivalent of the orchestra pit in front of the stage sang the bhajan “Om Jai Jagdish”.

The beautiful stage at Dwarka

Following the ceremonydifferent committee members came into the audience holding aarti plates with a lamp burning on them and offered everyone ladoos (a type of sweet) as prasadI really loved the community-feeling I experienced at Dwarka. Everyone seemed to know each other and many people after seeing that Noor and I weren’t from Dwarka, offered to find us better seats from which to see the Ramlila. I was really touched by how kind everyone at this Ramlila was. In this sense, it reminded me a lot of the Ramlila at Ramnagar.

On this day of the Ramlila, Janak was giving his newly-married daughter Sita away to her husband and in-laws. The actress playing Sita was beautiful and she looked gorgeous in a stunning red and gold bridal lengha. In this Ramlila in addition to a narrator describing what was going on, all the actors also had microphones and they spoke their own dialogues. So during this scene, the audience could hear the actress playing Sita crying as she left her family in Mithila and moved to Ayodhya. It was actually quite moving. When Sita arrived in Ayodhya (she actually just walked from one end of the stage to the other to represent her journey), she was warmly greeted by the three queens of Ayodhya: Kausalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. Then the wedding party from Mithila and the three queens faced the audience so that the spectators at the Ramlila could experience their darshan. It was quite a lovely tableau. However it was also a bittersweet one. Everyone in the audience knew that this image of a happy family would not last for long and soon Ram, Sita, and Lakshman would be exiled to the forest for fourteen years.

The bittersweet image of Ram’s happy family at the Ramlila

I really enjoyed the Ramlila at Dwarka and found it to be very professionally executed. It was also a welcome experience after my two action-packed days at the Ramlilas in Old Delhi! However, I’m really glad that in the past month I got to see a range of traditional Ramlila performances in Ramnagar, Old Delhi and Dwarka. I want to take a chance to thank everyone who come with me to these Ramlila performances and also everyone who volunteered to come with me to these Ramlila performances even though we didn’t end up going: Shivani, Professor Singh, Natassia, Noor, Rita Aunty, Sushil Uncle, Nandini, Suraj, Yogesh-ji, and Michelle. Thank you all so much!

On Wednesday night (Dussehra), I’m planning on attending yet another Ramlila performance in Gurgaon (a neighboring city of Delhi in the state of Haryana). This night should be very exciting as it is on Dussehra when Ram finally defeats Ravan and a huge, towering effigy of Ravan will be lit on fire to signify his destruction. It should be quite an experience!

I’m incredibly excited for the upcoming week for a number of reasons. The first is that my cousin Akshar is getting married on Saturday! I’ve been looking forward to this wedding for the past ten months! The house is currently buzzing with preparations for the different wedding events. This weekend I’ve been running around buying gifts and other items I’ll need this week for the wedding. My parents are arriving in Bangalore tomorrow morning from the USA. I’m so excited to see them! I’m going to be flying down to Bangalore early on Tuesday morning to hang out with them and my cousin, aunt and Grandma and then on Wednesday morning my parents and I will fly back to Delhi just in time for Dussehra. I think it’ll be lots of fun to see the Ramlila with my parents. And then the wedding events begin!

Since I’ll be quite busy, I doubt I’ll be able to write a blog post next week. However, I promise a VERY exciting blog post in two weeks! Stay tuned!

Thanks for Reading!

~Sohini~

 

 
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