For those who thought Delhi’s Ramlilas were all about bad wigs, gaudy make-up and overthe-top acting, here is a bit of hearty film trivia. Actor Shah Rukh Khan, who was born and raised in Delhi, got his first acting break at his neighbourhood Ramlila.
As a child, he played the part of a monkey in Hanuman’s army. “That’s how I lost the fear of crowds… performing live in front of thousands of people,” he said in an interview recently.
But ask a teenager attending an upscale city school like the Bollywood superstar did, he will tell you how he would not be caught dead on a Ramlila stage. As for many from my generation, Ramlilas may have a nostalgia value. But they would stop at that.
Ramlilas are organised in almost all localities, even the most posh ones, in Delhi. But residents’ participation is limited to donations. There are some famous ones at Subhash Maidan at Red Fort and Ramlila Maidan near Ajmeri Gate that get a lot of VIPs, including the Prime Minister himself. But otherwise, one can tell from the gatherings that the city has moved on.
Ramlila is much more about performing arts than religious rites. Generations of artistes demonstrated their skills on this stage till mass interest ran dry. This indifference has triggered a change that is obvious in the social profile of the present patrons.
Earlier, Ramlilas drew participation from across the society. It was in the walled city that Ramlila, the nine-day depiction from Ram’s life and his fight with Ravan, evolved Delhi style under the patronage of the Mughal kings and the local traders. The sawari or the street procession of Ramlila artists was a must see for anyone visiting the old city during the Navratri.
For Delhi’s younger generations, Ramlila Maidan evokes the memories of the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption protest, the police crackdown on Ramdev’s yoga camp, and Arvind Kejriwal cabinet’s oathtaking ceremony. But it used be a major landmark on Delhi’s cultural map. One evening in 1957 when Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were watching Ramlila here, a fire threatened to bring down the Shamiyana and a young boy risked his life to save the VIPs. Impressed, Nehru announced the National Bravery Award for children, now handed over on the Republic Day.
Not too long ago, students from Delhi’s top schools would throng in hundreds to revel at the bow-and-arrow contest between the good and the evil. Popular participation meant your neighbourhood guys, who would never take to the stage otherwise, playing the benign Ram or the boisterous Ravan. And the kids would line up to seek their roles as members of the vanarsena (monkey army).
As popular interest waned, some Ramlilas degenerated into cabarets to attract crowds that gathered to cheer such fare. A few years ago, the high court had to intervene, banning obscene songs and “item numbers”. But the indifference towards Ramlila among the middle class and the upwardly mobile is rather strange when pop religion —from animation to branded toys— is becoming popular.
Every generation outgrows traditions or reinvents those. So we have disco dandiyas with corporate sponsorship. It is an encouraging sign that some Delhi neighbourhoods have been trying to make their Ramlilas socially relevant, picking “demons” like corruption and honour killing to be slain by Ram on the day of Dussehra.
This year, some Ramlila organisers are raising donations for the flood victims of Jammu and Kashmir. The popular ones are trying technological innovations like drone surveillance to control the crowds and laser arrows for the Ram-Ravan fights. ISRO’s triumph over Mars is the big theme at one Ramlila this year.
For a city that takes great pride in its physical heritage, even vying for the UNESCO’s world city heritage status, Delhi’s sense of history cannot be restricted to just brick and mortar. So, walk down to a Ramlila ground this evening and, if nothing else, feed your curiosity. Chances are you won’t be disappointed.