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Dussehra in Delhi: How conventional Ramlilas moved from small shows to mega budget glitz

Ramlilas in Delhi that were once small-scale productions have now increased to mythic proportions with huge budgets. According to an estimate, the budget of any major Ramlila now starts from ₹80-90 lakh.

delhi Updated: Sep 29, 2017 11:04 IST
Parvez Sultan
An artiste performs at the Ramlila organised by Shri Dharmic Leela Committee at Red Fort on Wednesday.
An artiste performs at the Ramlila organised by Shri Dharmic Leela Committee at Red Fort on Wednesday. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

In Delhi, the tradition of Ramlilas is believed to have begun around 350 years ago when Mughal emperor Shahjahan shifted his capital from Agra to Shahjahanabad. Since its inception, the tradition has undergone a significant transformation — from techniques and equipments used, to the scale of the act.

Lately, the scale of these Ramlilas has increased to mythic proportions with their ever-increasing budgets. According to an estimate, the budget of any major Ramlila starts from ₹80-90 lakh.

Their numbers have also swelled up. Around 1,000 performances, including small-budget productions, are held across the city. The Delhi Police grants permission to about 250 Ramlila committees every year.

The Walled City has four big Ramlilas — three in the lawns in front of the Red Fort, and one at Ramlila Maidan opposite Zakir Husain Delhi College.

“The Ramlilas have transformed into high-tech enactments. Cutting-edge gadgets are used to perform stunts; film and TV actors are roped in; and original scores are written by professional lyrists. Latest sound systems, music equipments and lights have become permanent fixtures,” said Ravi Jain, press secretary, Shri Dharmic Leela Committee (SDLC).

Muradabad-based artiste Pradeep Sharma, who has been performing at SDLC for 52 years, said a major change in Ramlilas is the participation by female actors.

“Around 1950s-60s, no one could imagine that a woman would perform on the Ramlila stage. All female roles were played by the male actors. We brought a female actor in our group for the first time in 1965. A lot has changed since then. Every department has been revolutionised, be it music, makeup, lighting, or stage design,” said Sharma, who is now only involved with direction and supervision.

This year his troupe has 35 members, which include 10 female artistes.

Costumes get special attention now with organisers hiring designers from Bollywood. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Music and grand sets

Today, sophisticated musical instruments, orchestra, and professional musicians are crucial elements at all major Ramlilas. However, till the 1970s, harmoniums, tablas and sarangis were the only instruments used. Electric blubs were tied to wooden poles were used to illuminate the stage. The actors would deliver dialogues facing the “VIP” guests sitting in the first row.

The stage, erected in the centre of Ramlila Maidan, had no backdrop or designer sets.

“Now, we have 3D sets and LED displays to depict landscapes. Multi-deck sets are built and the production has professional makeup artists. Earlier, we used a mixture of glycerine and colour for make-up and applied kajal in place of eyeliners. The artistes would carry microphones manually if they had to move on the stage,” Sharma said.

Costume is another department, which is given special attention now. Earlier, the costumes used to be sourced from nearby markets like Chandni Chowk. But now the organisers hire costume designers from Bollywood.

Folk songs and popular bhajans were played at the event earlier, with locals volunteering to sing. But now, new lyrics are penned with original music scores.

“In our locality, there were families from Multan, who had migrated after partition, who would sing in the jagratas. They religiously participated in Ramlila too. I have seen Gulshan Kumar, the founder of T-Series music label, singing at Ramlila opposite Lok Nayak Hospital,” said Swadesh Chawla, a public relation professional, who was a resident of Darya Ganj.

Promoting local talent

To keep the audience engaged, the committees allowed aspirants to show off their acting or singing skills during breaks. This arrangement has also witnessed widespread changes in last 30 years. Now, the organisers employ trained dancers, orchestra, and film or TV actors to entertain audience during the breaks.

“The stage used to become a talent hunt show of sort. Aspiring artists would mimic stars like Dev Anand, Om Prakash, Mehmood, or Raj Kumar,” said Ved Arora, a businessman from Old Delhi.

With venerated artistic composition rapidly turning into lavish production, old-timers are not pleased with the changing formats.

“Vulgar dance performances are planned to attract crowd. The audience whistles at distasteful dance moves. It seems to have lost its religious significance and sanctity. A couple of years ago, spectators went berserk during a dance performance. As the situation turned uncontrollable, the police had to intervene,” said a Chandni Chowk resident, who was associated with a Ramlila organising committee.

Old Delhi has four major Ramlilas — three in the lawns in front of the Red Fort, and one at Ramlila Maidan opposite Zakir Hussain Delhi College. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

A celebration of community bonding

The Ramlilas have played a major role in facilitating an inclusive society and strengthen community bonding since its inception. Muslims artisans are usually involved in production jobs like making Dussehra effigies and actors from the community have been playing characters in the Ramlilas for years.

The committees organised various activities for students in which Muslims children would participate in sizeable numbers. “I participated in a drawing competition in 1991 held by Luv Kush Ramlila Committee (LKRC) at Lal Quila ground. I have even won a prize — a lunch box,” said Mohammad Zaki, a resident of Bara Hindu Rao.

As part of a decades-old practice, Muslim residents of Shahjahanabad accord warm welcome to the Ramlila procession as it passes through their localities. Various groups put stalls along the route and distribute refreshments.

“We have seen our elders welcoming ‘Ram Baraat’ taken out by LKRC for years. The youth are also following the custom with the same spirit,” said Nasir Ansari, president of the youth wing of All-India Momin Conference, a social organisation.

Moradabad-based artiste Pradeep Sharma (centre) has been performing at the city’s Ramlilas for around 52 years. (HT Photos)

The Bollywood connection

LKRC, formed in 1988, stole the limelight when it started inviting big film stars as special guests at its function. The guest list includes actors like Rajesh Khanna, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Govinda, Vivek Overoi, Zeenat Aman, and Hema Malini among others.

However, Delhi Ramlilas’ association with Hindi cinema does not begin with LKRC.

Several Delhi-based movie stars had their first brush with acting in their childhood on the Ramlila stage. While Shah Rukh Khan would play at a Ramlila in Rajinder Nagar, Akshay Kumar has performed as Hanuman in Old Delhi. Gajendra Chauhan (best known for his portrayal of Yudhishthira in Mahabharat TV series) and Manoj Pahwa were part of productions in Khampur and Laxmi Nagar.

“Shah Rukh Khan was part of Ramlila staging that would happen near H block but I don’t remember, which role he used to play,” said Chaudhary Jagannath, who organises Dussehra in Rajinder Nagar.

“Even I bagged an award for my role as Shravan Kumar when I was student of Class VII,” said the former chairman of Film and Television Institute of India.