Ramlila has come early to Delhi this year. The epic drama of the victory of good over evil is celebrated every year, culminating in the burning of a huge effigy of the ten-headed demon king Ravana. But the recent celebrations have been absolutely fantastic.
Several departures from tradition have livened up the act. We had got tired of watching the same stale play, performed by the same old bores. This time, they hit upon the idea of Rama defeating Ravana not by sheer force of arms, but by going on a fast. This was a major innovation, never before tried in the history of Ramlila. Also brilliant was the idea of making the actor who plays Rama really fast, which is why they got in a master faster called Anna. His performance has been breathtaking and we look forward to several encores. Other new faces have been brought in. Lakshman is played by a chap called Kejriwal. A talented actor called Bhushan plays the role of Hanuman splendidly, leaping from petition to petition. The Ravana camp too has seen excellent performances, mainly by the rakshasas who are Members of Parliament in their spare time.
The high point of the play, of course, is the battle between Rama and Ravana. The scene in which Ravana, along with Meghnad and Kumbhakarna, ride out to do battle only to be completely baffled by Rama’s new fast weapon, is very entertaining. They try to put up a brave face and Meghnad, played by a chap called Sibal, sings Kalidasa’s famous couplet, “Sticks and stones may break my bones/ But fasts will never hurt me”, but you can see they’re rattled.
They then huddle in Lanka, the abode of the Rakshasas, also known as the Indian Parliament. After much thought, they send out Meghnad with their most potent weapon — chicken biryani-astra. But that is blown up by a well-aimed blast from Rama’s secret weapon — the Brahma-fastra. Rama is then bombarded by mutton vindaloo, butter chicken, mutter paneer and rasmalai, but Kejriwal, in a touching display of brotherly love, hogs all the dishes, thus allowing his elder brother to fast unhindered. Kumbhakarna then sends in several bottles of enticing Scotch-astra, but this move fails miserably, as the vanar sena effortlessly swallow the stuff, riding on motorbikes and waving flags all the while.
Also interesting are the mantras used in the battle. When a demon tries to attack Hanuman, Rama sends him reeling by uttering the terrible mantra “Lokpal Bill”. There’s also comic relief, as when Lakshman, while fighting with an ogre, utters the wrong mantra. “Make income tax evasion a criminal offence”, he mutters and is amazed to see swathes of vanars, particularly from the Business Brigade, deserting his army. Thankfully, he withdraws this boomerang-mantra just in time.
The best part of the whole show has been the round-the-clock TV coverage and you can watch it all from the comfort of your couch. You can also do your bit to usher in Ram Rajya by buying the popular ‘Whack-a-politician’ video game, although a drama troupe from Chhattisgarh called ‘Comrade Ganapathy and his Merry Maoists’ says the copyright belongs to them.
But I cannot conclude this account without unstinting praise for the actor who plays a superbly understated Ravana. Veteran actor Manmohan plays this new minimalist version, with only one head — that too wrapped in a blue turban. Nobody would ever guess, from his benign expression and his white beard, that he is actually a fearsome demon and has Sita locked away in his garden shed.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal