Ramlila: Now showing on a road in Thane
Since she was 12 years old, Priyanka Vishwakarma, has been travelling all the way from Bhiwandi to Indira Nagar in Thane to play the role of Sita in the Ramlila during the 10-day Navratri festival.
On Friday, Priyanka, now 20, like every year, gets ready to essay her role.
“I don’t mind travelling long hours in the traffic to come here for the performance. The reward I get is the applause and appreciation from the audience,” says Priyanka, whose mother Ranjana, 40, also performs in the same Ramlila as Kaikayi.
Like the Vishwakarmas, over 20 artistes are part of Thane’s sole Ram Leela organised by Indira Nagar Vikas Mandal since 1994.
In the sweltering October heat, they are decked up with heavy ornaments, costumes and caked with make-up. The wait for the clock to strike 8 so that they can take the stage to do their bit in showcasing the ancient tradition amid the increasing popularity of garba and dandiya.
On Friday night, the part of Lord Rama breaking the bow to win over Sita’s hand was being performed amid a crowd of thousands of people from the nearby locality on the busy Indira Nagar Road.
The continuous honking of vehicles did not deter the artistes or the audience. The crowd had religiously occupied their favourite spot on the road. All eyes were on the stage, where a fat pot-bellied sanyasi was trying to outdo Lord Rama in breaking the bow. He sure invited giggles from the crowd.
Priyanka, who is a second-year science student, said, “I love all the attention from the audience. My mother too loves acting and had performed in most Bhojpuri serials in her yesteryears. Her enthusiasm is a big encouragement for me to continue taking part in the Ramlila.”
About a decade ago, Thane used to host Ramlila at nine venues — one of which was performed at Indira Nagar, Wagale Estate. The other venues were Manorama Nagar in Dokali, Raghunath Nagar, Yadav Nagar and Shrinagar.
Anjani Kumar Singh, president of the mandal, said, “The dearth of good and dedicated artistes and lack of sponsors for the good old art form are responsible for the decreasing number of Ramlilas in the city.”
“Some of the artistes, who gain fame in our Ramlila, move on to perform for bigger organisers in Mumbai, Gujarat or even Lucknow. We have to spend around 5 lakh for the 10-day performance,” Singh added.
The artistes, who work in different professions, begin rehearsals a month in before Navratri begins.
Singh said, “We have around 30 dedicated artistes who do not charge a dime for the performance. We provide them food and travel expenses as they have to make lots of adjustment in their schedule for a month.”
“We have collected props, jewellery and costumes from Varanasi, Jodhpur and Lucknow. However, all these are prone to wear and tear and even if a small crown is damaged we spend a lot replacing it,” said Singh.
The king’s crown need to look like a king’s crown and not a cheap replica, said Singh.
The crumbling budget of the mandal is evident in the stage set-up, which is made of loosely assembled table, wobbling all the way from the front to the back.
The artistes are seen jostling for space in a minuscule enclosure at the back of the stage which serves as a feeble excuse for a make-up room.
All of them are adept in doing their own make-up and do not need any professional help. The tiny stage and the tinier make-up room do not dim their enthusiasm a bit.
Samajit Yadav, 55, has been playing the role of Sugriv in the Ramlila, for more than 15 years. This reel life King of Vanara (monkeys) in the play has the same determination in his real life.
Unwell and weak since the first day of Ramlila, Yadav does not want to skip the show. His shaky hands give away his physical weakness.
“The show must go on, I do not want the cast to suffer due to my illness.”
Salon owner Ramchandra Sharma, 40, has been playing the role of Rama for over 15 years.
Sweating profusely in his heavy costume, he said, “This is our mandal and each artiste is important. Every day, hundreds of people come here to watch us perform. We are dedicated to entertain them. A little rise in temperature will not affect us.”
Like the team, the Ramlila also has a dedicated audience. Shyam Yadav, 45, a resident of Wagale Estate, makes it a point to watch the Ramlila with his three children every year.
“We as children had read and seen the Ramlila. However, it is important that our children too watch it. In the good old days, Ramayana used to be played on the television every Sunday and every family in the country watched and devoured it. Now, this annual Ramlila is the only way for our children to know about the epic,” he said.