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Living a god’s life

It’s hard to know how to address this nine-year-old. His name is Pawan Kumar, but for the past three months he has been answering to the call of ‘Shatrughan Maharaj’, writes Namita Kohli.

india Updated: Oct 04, 2008 22:07 IST
Namita Kohli

It’s hard to know how to address this nine-year-old. His name is Pawan Kumar, but for the past three months he has been answering to the call of ‘Shatrughan Maharaj’. He has been revising the role of Ram’s brother all this while. “But today, you have to call me Lakshmiji, as I am playing the devi just for this day at the lila,” says the brat, before rushing off to get his make-up done by his grandfather.

Of the 1,500-odd Ramlilas that happen in and around Varanasi, as indeed the countless ones that are staged around the country, Ramnagar’s stands out. In this town, the actors live the text of Tulsidas’s Ramayan for the whole month that ends with the Navratra. The actors are addressed by the roles they act out and are accorded the attendant respect too. No matter who his real father is, young Pawan has to stand up every time ‘Ram’, another boy of about the same age, happens to pass by — in his make-up on way to a ‘scene’, or unadorned, on way to the toilet.

The lila is much more than a play because of another reason — the whole town of Ramnagar, situated across the Ganga at Varanasi, is taken over as the stage. An enclosure in one corner of the town is Lanka, whereas in another corner is Ayodhya. The crowd of thousands moves around as the story unfolds. A view of the whole lila entails a walk of 5 kilometres around town.

The cast of the lila is decided according to a centuries-old tradition. Apart from the roles that have been passed down the generations of specific families, the leads — Ram, his three brothers and Sita — are played by pre-adolescent boys with ‘sweet voices’. Every year, Anant Narayan Singh, the titular king of Varanasi and chief patron, chooses the ones with ‘the most meetha swar’ (a voice that hasn’t cracked yet) from among hundreds of hopefuls.

In this cast of 30-odd ‘pure Brahmins’, the one who stands out is Shoorpnakha, the temptress — the role is reserved for the only non-Brahmin, Munni Devi. Across the river, she’s known as Munnibai and used to do ‘gaana-bajana’, but here she gets ‘respect’, even if only for five days of the lila month. At first, she claims to be a Hindu, but over half a dozen conversations with her and her husband, it unfolds that the 40-something woman is, in fact, a Muslim.

She says, “I used to sing… but people don’t respect such work. Here, the money is a pittance, but I get izzat — the Maharaj calls for me. I am serving god, whether it’s Ram or Rahim, how does it matter.”

For the others, who are ‘playing god’, it’s a different grind altogether. For the three months — two for rehearsals and one of the lila — these ‘pure Brahmin’ boys turn into incarnates. So Ram, a.k.a. Sandeep Shukla, has to ensure, among other things, that his ‘brothers’ don’t fight. The brothers in turn, need to pay respect to him. “Everyone has to be referred as aap, we need to talk properly,” says Lakshman, aka Shubham Tiwari, as he examines his make-up.

“It’s a bit difficult, you can’t watch TV and you can’t play. The day starts at 5 in the morning, and all day we just sit and learn the verses,” complains Shubham. Every day of this annual ritual, Tiwari and Co are fed at least one litre of milk, a glass of dal juice and fresh, home-cooked food.

And cricket is, of course, banned for this bunch of die-hard Yuvraj fans. “Oh, I love Yuvi. But then, where’s the time to even think about these things?” says Sandeep, er, Ramji, while he tries to remain still as kajal is being put on his eyes. Even Sita, or Susheel Dubey, talks of cricket as he puts on his bindi.

But for Shukla, Tiwari and Dubey, all this hardship is not without benefits. First comes the glory. The Rs 2,000 that they get at the end of the three months matters much less. But the whole treatment as gods is difficult to live down.

People come all the way from farflung villages of Uttar Pradesh to touch the feet of Shukla, Tiwari and Dubey. “Even when we head back to Varanasi, people will respect us,” says Shubham’s mother Sarita Tiwari, who says she has given her son ‘away’ so that he learns ‘discipline’.

What will Ram and Co do at the end of the three months? “I’m scared — my exams are in November,” says Sandeep, who studies in class 9. “For the last three months, we have not studied properly. And there will be a lot of catching up to do.” Indeed, Ravan will not be the last demon this Ram will have to fight.