On Tuesday, a Dubai-based office assistant stormed into ‘Lanka’ created on a stage at Azad Maidan, while his uncle, an accountant, sporting a ten-headed mask, shot cardboard arrows at him.
The two ‘enemies’ are part of the 35-member Ramlila troupe from Mathura’s Sri Sarveshwar Ramakrishna Leela Manch, which is in the city to stage the ten-part Ramayan series at the Azad Maidan ground as part of the Navratri celebrations. The troupe has been performing in various Mumbai venues for nearly a century.
“Navratri is the only time of the year when I return to India. Of the 15 days’ leave, I spend just five days with my family in Mathura and the rest here in Mumbai, perfecting my role of Bali (who defeated Ravan before he abducted Sita),” said Atul Chaturvedi, 31, who will be going back to Dubai soon after Dussehra, which is on October 6.
For the artistes — most of who are Chaturvedi Brahmins — working in a Ramlila is a spiritual experience and not just a regular drama. “Getting into the skin of the character is not an ordeal. It is in our genes,” said Prakash Chaturvedi, who plays Hanuman on stage. Prakash’s father and grandfather also essayed the role of the Monkey God earlier.
“We learn the facial expressions, body movements and mannerisms by watching others since childhood. We never call actors for auditions,” said Pandit Gajendranath Chaturvedi, the director of the play. Gajendra plays a dual role, King Dashrath and Parsuram in the play. “The entire experience is divine. Despite having portrayed the same role for more than three decades, we rehearse for several hours before we set foot on the stage.”
The troupe, which camps in Mumbai for a fortnight every Navratri, does not include women. While the 170-year-old tradition of enacting the Ramlila continues to charm the aged, audience members claimed that it was difficult to get their children interested.
“After much prodding, my son finally agreed to come,” said Meghna Talwar, a Bhandup resident, who accompanied her son Aarav, 6, for the performance on Monday. “Owing to the 10 pm deadline for loudspeakers, the segment was cut short and we had to leave even before the plot got engaging.”