Two young women put their buzzing phones on silent as Raavan, dressed as a harmless ascetic, lures Sita outside the Lakshman Rekha. A small screen set above the main stage projects, in English, an alternate meaning of the Lakshman Rekha – that, in a sense, it was a moral boundary, meant to show what happens when you commit transgressions. The women look at each other as if to say, “Ha! Makes sense!”.
A few acts and a few seats away, a four-year old kid sitting on his mother’s lap, watches with rapt attention as the vaanar sena builds the Ram Setu. When the bridge over the sea is built, a few monkeys disengage from the stage in celebration, and jump in amongst the audience instead, frolicking as they exit the performance area. One even shakes hands with the kid, who is only too elated.
The Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra Ramlila may be in its 60th year now. But even today it draws in the crowds by the hundreds every day, for the one whole month that it is staged. A ticketed event, as opposed to most of the other Ramlilas that are open for the masses, it provides a proscenium experience with grand sets, lighting, sound, resplendent costumes and installation choreography. But what attracts people to it and keeps them glued through the 150 minutes of this dance drama are the emotions and the nostalgia of revisiting a much loved, and for many a much revered, mythology.
The Delhi of 1957 was a far cry from the Capital city as we know it today. Kasturba Gandhi Marg, which runs parallel to the well-known Janpath in central Delhi, used to be called Curzon Road. It was in the basement of one of the buildings here that the first production of this Ramlila was held, 60 years ago. That building, to be precise, is where the headquarters of the Hindustan Times now stands. And that first Ramlila was produced with a sum of money sanctioned by Jawaharlal Nehru himself.
“I was 13 years old then, when my mother approached Pandit Nehru for this production,” says Shobha Deepak Singh, director of Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, famous classical dancer and Padma Shri awardee. Singh is going to turn 73 this year, and she has herself produced more than 30 editions of the dance drama till date. “And to think that I started off by playing a monkey!” she laughs, adding, “My mother (noted Indian arts patron Sumitra Charan Ram, who also founded the Kendra) wished to stage the Sampoorn Ramayan. But in the initial years, we didn’t have enough dancers. So my sisters and I would end up playing the monkeys and the rakshasas.” Today, they have around 40 dancers on board. And new people keep joining in every year.
The same enthusiasm is replicated among the audience too, with many in the crowd being from the young, Snapchat generation. How then does this Ramlila manage to stay relevant with the fast, digital times of today? “For the last few years, we’ve included a simple PowerPoint presentation (PPT) that runs on a screen simultaneous to the dance drama on stage,” says Singh. For the uninitiated and even for those who don’t remember the details, the PPT presents in English, the context of the acts that is played out on stage. At times, it also provides an alternate narrative because, as Singh says, “there’s the text and then there’s the subtext. Take the story of Ahalya, for instance. Popular notion is that she was turned into a stone. What I believe is that her tender emotions were turned to stone, as can happen with any of us, right?” The Tinder generation may agree only too well!
From HT Brunch, October 8
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