Stage actor Bankeylal Chaturvedi loves it when angry audiences throw bricks at him after the show.
The 60-year-old artiste from Mathura’s Sri Anant Ramleela Mandal has played the role of Ravan for the past 25 years. His troupe is currently in Mumbai, where they have been putting up Navratri performances annually since 1964.
“When the public curses me, I know the team has successfully conveyed the lessons of Lord Ram,” said Bankeylal, whose tall, muscular frame is an imposing presence in the cramped Girgaum dormitory where the 40 actors and musicians are put up every October.
For these artistes – most of whom are Chaturvedi Brahmins – working in a Ramleela is not regular theatre. It is service to God, and getting into the skin of the character is almost a divine experience.
“Ram is the epitome of sacrifice, and when I step on stage in my costume, I begin to feel all his emotions,” said Amit Chaturvedi, 21, a commerce post-graduate who ‘transforms’ into Lord Ram every Dussehra season. For the three weeks of the tour, troupe members greet him as ‘Ramji’ and eat all meals only after he tastes the first morsel.
Sitting beside him is ‘Sita’, the slight, 20-year-old Vivek Chaturvedi who attends accountancy classes in Mathura when he’s not on stage in a sari.
“Playing a woman like Sita is not difficult — once I start thinking like her, even crying comes naturally,” said Vivek, whose favourite scene is the marriage with Ram.
Like most traditional Ramleela mandals, this troupe is strictly all-male. “We also don’t allow married men to play virtuous characters like Ram, Sita and Laxman,” said Baijnath Chaturvedi, the mandal’s director and manager who played Ram himself for 10 years in his bachelor days.
Actor Babulnath, 40, is well married, but among Mumbai’s north Indian, Maharashtrian and Gujarati audiences, he is the undisputed favourite.
“As Hanuman, I am mischievous and provide comic relief, but I am also the virtuous role model,” said the rotund actor who has played the role for 15 years and now proudly sports a Hanuman tattoo on his arm. “Kids call me Superman.”