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Playing god in Ramnagar

Two bar dancer girls walked up to the Ramlila stage in the eastern Uttar Pradesh city of Mirzapur this autumn, performing to a titillating Bollywood number — to celebrate the ‘swayamvar’ (wedding) of Rama and Sita.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2009 22:54 IST

Two bar dancer girls walked up to the Ramlila stage in the eastern Uttar Pradesh city of Mirzapur this autumn, performing to a titillating Bollywood number — to celebrate the ‘swayamvar’ (wedding) of Rama and Sita.

Some 100 kilometres away, drum beats rose from the darkness and silence at another Ramlila. In the dim light of paraffin lamps, two elephants emerged, carrying the man revered as the king of Kashi — the ancient name of Varanasi — and his family, and closely followed by a dozen turban clad singers, sitting in a cluster on a wooden stool.

It was the 200-year-old Ramnagar Ramlila, the dramatic enactment of the story of Ram — but with none of the trappings of loud music or technology, and spectators, called ‘niyamis’, participating as well by reading dialogues in the torchlight.

The art form is holding on to its own outside Ramnagar city in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, in an era of Bollywoodised and marketing-driven Ramlila.

The private nursing home worker, Mahadev, has been coming here for a decade to be a ‘niyami’. “My boss is very nice. He relieves me every day at five p.m. so that I can participate in the leela (drama)”.

Vishwanath Yadav, 65, is a milkman -turned-broker of chewing tobacco in Varanasi’s Chetganj neighbourhood. “I represent the third generation of my family which has been sending one ‘niyami’ at least every year.”

Everyone chanted verses from the Ramacharitamanas amid the loud clanging of cymbals and the beat of drums. From time to time, the director of the leela shouted, “savdhan!” (be attentive) and “chup raho!” (keep quiet).

Hundreds of spectators huddled and watched: armed with torches, copies of the Ramcharitmanas epic, bamboo fans. The niyamis throng the lila on all days only after bathing in the Ganga river and sprinkling perfume that they carry with them.

There are no microphones, no lights at the 31-day Ramlila. Most of the episodes are more symbolic and less dramatic. The chariot carrying the five protagonists — Ram, Lakshman, Bharat, Shatrughan and Sita — are pushed by devotees.

At Ramlila time, the entire town transforms into a performing hub. There is no single stage, but several permanent structures built across 50 sq kilometres, like Ashok Vatika, where Sita was kept as a prisoner by the demon king Ravan; Janakpuri, the kingdom of Janak where she was born; and Panchvati, the forest where Ram and Sita, went in exile.

The actors and the audience move from one village to another, one structure to the other, walking through gardens, temples, and imaginary forests, or the Ganga river, represented in the town by a local lake.

The concept of the unique Ramlila was born in the late 18th century, by a local king called Maharaja Udit Narayan. Kastha Jeehva Swami, a seer revered by the royal family, created the permanent Ramlila structures and location across the small town, as well as adapted .Ramacharitmanas dialogues into the Avadhi dialect of Hindi.

The descendant of the town’s royal family, Anant Narayan Singh, is still revered by many as a king. “Ramlila is a living heritage, which we cannot even dream of destroying by fiddling with technology,” he says. “It symbolises faith, not entertainment,” he adds.

Every day, Singh attends the performance, coming on a horse drawn carriage. There are no VIP guests. No invites are sent out. “Ramlila is not a commodity on sale,” Singh says.