Slice of Rama’s Leela: Ageless tradition adding to festive fervour

Young Rama, Lakshman and Sita

With technological advancements, the traditional enactment of the the Ramlila has fast lost its community connect. As youngsters have easy access to TV, social media and the Internet, a generation gap is evident. Over the years right from light, sounds to costumes each Ramlila has seen an overhaul, but the essence remains the same

Carrying forward an over 5 century legacy once started under Nawab Asafauddaulah and the third king of Awadh Maulana Mohammed Ali Shah; Pandit Aaditya Dwivedi is a busy man. He has spent three months trying to find the best picks for who plays the important Ramlila characters for this years Ramlila at Aishbagh. A tideous selection process, it has seen several rounds of auditions and rejections to comeup with the best of the lot. A sum total of around 280 artists are reheasrsing night and day so that the best Ramlila spectacle in town is not robbed off its sheen. They now gear up for the start of the Ramlila on 3rd October when they will be moulded into their godly halo and will have to maintain the highest standards of penance, austerity, stay away from wrong deeds, eat vegetarian and not even consume garlic or onions. The likes of Rama, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman living simple within the Ramlila compound will be sleeping on the floor and shun worldly pleasures. The main characters each day before the show will be worshipped on stage with an aarti. Hundreds of Ram and lakshman loyalists will touch their feet as they climb onstage to relive Ram and his era yet again.

 The six key characters of Rama, Sita, Laxman, Bharat, Shatrughan and Ravana remain the most careful picks. In Lucknow, the Ramlila is held for a week or max ten days ending up in a battle between Rama and Ravana leading to the ultimately death of Ravana signifying the victory of good over evil.

Actively telling stories of Rama’s life even before Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana hit the screens, Lucknow’s Ramlilas have the distinction of having the Tulsidas stamp. The genesis of the Ramlila in the state was attributed to Tulsidas who laid its foundation in Chitrakoot, Varanasi and Lucknow first. The nation later followed suit. 

Ravana reigns on stage

Meticulously planned to the minutest detail, it starts with worshipping of Ganesha and the Kalash Sthaapna which marks the beginning of Ramlila with a special puja invoking the godly spirits. An atmosphere is maintained with strong restrictions and detachment so that the sanctity of the Ramayana is maintained at the highest level. “A strongly Brahmacharya life is led during these days so that the person playing Rama, Hanuman, Sita, Lakshman and Ravan are shown respect in every way,” says Pandit Aaditya Dwivedi, Secy of the Sri Ramleela Samiti, Aishbagh.

Daily pujas along with Shastra Puja on Dashami, the Rajgaddi process followed by a Khichdi Havan and finally after the ten day long Dussehra bringing back the actors to their earthly self add to the experience that is customary for any and everyone part of the Ramlila committees.

Ramlila and Rama in particular for many remains a code of conduct that each and everyone should follow. It is about relationships and bonding. It is about the values and ideals that we as Indians continue to cherish in real life, says Pandit Dwivedi.  

From just 200 people in an audience to a jampacked viewership life for many such Ramlilas in the city has come a long way. With quality going down, Ramlilas in the city have been ramped up both acting wise and technologically. Some now even stream the act live with the younger brigade using Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for greater eyeballs.

A representation of the multi religious Ramlila that typifies the multi religious culture of Lucknow, Railway employees started the Alambagh Ramlila in 1951 when staged under street lights and charpoys that doubled up as a astage. It has seen Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs all perform in unison.

Blending modernity with traditional artists, the age old scripted play once created by Radheshyam and Jaswant Singh is staged here. It is known for its extravagant Ram durbar and the decor on stage is thanks to veteran Doordarshan hand Bhuvnesh Srivastava with Direction courtesy Virendra Sharma and Ranjeet Singh Rana.

There is excitement in the Railway Ramlila Dussehra Committee as the Ramlila and Bharat Milap Shobha Yatra nears. Planned for the second day of Dussehra the procession is slated to traverse areas like Chander Nagar Nagar Nigam to Janta College, Kanpur Road and Shringar road leading to the Ramlila Manch.

Mridul Mishra of the Railway Ramlila Dussehra Committee says, “Alambagh sees actors from as diverse an age group as 5 year olds to 85 old. For the Kevat scene mosty 50+ people are picked. 90% Muslims play a prominent role in the Ramlila in the city with most effigies being prepared by them and many even acting. The Durbar scene here is usually staged with Muslims playing a lead role in it. Some even help in backstage activities.”

Among the best Ramlila’s in Lucknow, the Chowk Ramlila has only Brahmins playing the main characters of Ram, Laxman, Sita, Ravan, Bharat, Shatrughn and Hanuman. Started in 1937 by an 11 member committee headed by Rai Krishna Das aka Khun Khun ji it has stood apart because unlike other Ramlilas it sees the Ramlila start on Dussehra day.

 The first performance of this Ramlila was in Chhoti Kaliji temple in old city, Followed up later in the lanes of Old Lucknow and the Leela Grounds adjacent to Lohia Park in the 1970s. Mandodari (Ravana’s wife), Kaushalya, Kaikayi and Sumitra are played by women. Sita and Surpanakha are still played by men.

Bridging the Hindu Muslim divide, the Bakshi ka talab Ramlila on the other hand has seen an entire Muslim family helm the Ramlila for three generations. Started as early as 1972, under the guidance of Dr Muzaffar Hussain and Maikulal Yadav, now the legacy is being carried forward by Sabir and his next generation family members.

Similarly for over 75 years, the Ramlila at Chinhat has held its own, given its distinct Awadhi identity. It is the unique revival of Awadhi at the Shri Jeevan Sudhar Ramayani Sabha Ramlila that takes us back to our Awadhi roots through dialogue, acting and the subtlety in detail.

In its 54th year Lucknow’s Mahanagar Ramlila this year has Lord Rama being played by Class 11 student Apoorva. This is being read by many as a big push to women empowerment in a male dominated world.

With Ramlila reaching each nook and crany of this country estimates suggest in North India nearly 10,000 Ramlila committees are active. Among the 38 different Ramlilas in Lucknoow both small and big are LDA Colony, HAL, Kanpur Road, Khadara, Raniganj, Nepali Kothi, Itaunja, Amaniganj, Gosainganj, Sitapur Road, Sector A, Pant Nagar, Khurram Nagar and Kurmanchal Nagar. Each having their unique style foremost being jhankis; the dialogue – based approach; the enactment of folk operas of the areas and the mandali performances. 

The article was first published in Lucknow’s first English weekly The Lucknow Tribune

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