What does the hit TV comedy show, Comedy Nights With Kapil and the annual staging of Ramleela have in common? You don’t have to stretch your imagination too far, because the answer definitely revolves around role play. The magic woven by actors Ali Asgar, Sunil Grover and Kiku Sharda as women— namely Dadi, Gutthi and Palak— have been portrayed by local men for ages in the 10-day enactment of Ramayana culminating in the festival of Dussehra. But while audiences can’t seem to have enough of Gutthi and Palak, the male actors of Ramleela in the garb of women are being replaced by the ladies themselves.
In the city, we spot four girls behind the stage at the Ramleela grounds of Sector 28, Chandigarh. Saloni Rana, 23, is a post graduate from Post Graduate Government College for Girls, Sector 11, Chandigarh, and reveals that she has been participating in Ramleela for the past six years. Saloni claims to have been a part of the act at a time when she was the only girl in the group of actors. “For many years now, I have been playing the role of Sita. In the past three years, I have also played the characters of Shabri and Kaushalya,” she says. Saloni is an active theatre artiste and a dance teacher at Playway Smart School, Sector 37, Chandigarh.
What prevented women from enacting in Ramleela all this while? “It is our male-dominated mindset that has kept the women from participating in Ramleela. Then, the fact that it is performed at night also makes women feel insecure,” she says. Saloni makes a valid point when she says that most actors perform only for the love of it, since the maximum that one earns is `2,000-`3,000 for 10-days’ work.
While she is fortunate to find the support of her family in the endeavour, for 29-year-old Ekta Sodhi, this year’s debutant Ramleela actor, her husband acts as a pillar of strength. “Two years ago, I discussed with my husband how my job as a teacher wasn’t much exciting and that my heart lay in acting. He motivated me to pursue my heart’s desire and hence, I left my job and started concentrating on a career in acting by doing plays and nukad nataks,” says Ekta, an MCA (master’s in computer applications) from Punjabi University, Patiala. This year, she plays Kekayi in the Ramleela being enacted in Sector 28.
Ekta clears some misconceptions surrounding women’s particiaption on stage. “It is generally believed that the audience watching Ramleela is rowdy and absuive with no real religious sentiments. However, I have never experienced anything of the sort. Another reason that discourages women from particiapting is the odd timings of practice. But, my team accomodated for my sake since I have a five-year-old daughter. It now makes sure that I practice between 5-7 pm in the evenings,” she says.
Another Ramleela actor, Rachita Sharma, 21, who is studying to be a chartered accountant, adds, “Nowadays, the popularity of female actors has increased so much that various Ramleela productions approach us to be a part of their shows for at least a day. In the coming days, almost everyone will have female actors playing the roles,” she smiles elatedly.