The Drama Around Rama by Ankit Chadha, a student of Hindu College, DU (2008)

Introduction
Drama , in the post-independence India , has undergone tremendous development . The beginnings of this growth can be traced back to the classical ritualistic theater based on the epics of the Hindu religion , especially Ramayana . Raam Leela , as the staggery is popularly known , is one of the world’s most widespread and popular dramatic traditions . Also , it is extremely heterogeneous and is enjoyed by large audiences , sometimes , in lakhs.

One of the factors that make the Ramlilas a subject of keen interest to me is the pivotal role of the political changes that occurred in the region where I was born and brought up - the capital territory of Delhi .

As the population increased , the number of Ramlilas also rose .This has been an ongoing process that has witnessed the commercialization of this religious festival .Along with it , the very form of the Ramlilas , that is the way in which they are played , has diversified . Today, most of these performances are much more than street shows and , unfortunately , have lost the real taste and flavour they once offered .This project is a holistic analysis of the art and commerce of Ramlila.


PROLOGUE
From teaching the spirit of humanness to showcasing the power of the supernatural, this thrilling family drama has it all - beauty and beast, separation and reunion, insult and respect, loyalty and betrayal, love and war, crime and justice; and all this on an EPIC scale Ramayana is simply legendary and unbelievable stuff. Still, when it declares the courageous victory of dharma in such gigantic proportions, the work tends to command authority and becomes one of the most revered beliefs throughout the world . 

It is then that you realize the reason behind lila being counted among the four fundamental aspects of God( besides rup, nam and dham) in the Vaishnava theology .

We are living in an age where modern entertainment is adopting Ramayana and Ramayana is adapting to modern entertainment . Marketing Mix is the formula for success today. That is why you could see the bloody scene of Shurpanakha’s encounter with Lakshmana turning into a dose of laughter. This is the present.

But, before I say more about the present, let us discover the past to gain a historical context.

OBJECTIVES
  • To establish linkages between the role of patronage in the growth of Ramlilas and their historical origins .
  • To study the various versions , variations , scales, schools and spread of Ramlila across Delhi , India and the world .
  • To highlight the technical aspects of production such as lights, sounds, sets , costumes , make-up etc. and the degree of attention paid by the troupes on them.
  • To collect sufficient information that would enable us to list a directory of Ramlila committees in Delhi .
  • To examine the complex organization within and between these committees and the need for it in context of their dealing with government bodies.
  • To analyse the budgets of the productions , learn about the sources of funds and the business involved.
  • To know about the other activities that the people associated with the Ramlilas participate in , for the rest of the year .
  • To explore the possibility of a similar institutionalization of socio-political street theater .
  • METHODOLOGY
    1. Gain a background knowledge of the art form by consulting some of the commanding works on the subject.

    2. Seek to collect useful material through systematic groundwork and reading for each objective separately.

    3. Prepare questionnaires and then interact with the experts in the field to achieve clarity over issues involved.

    4.Conduct a comparative study of the primary data and arrive at a balanced conclusion .

    5. Deliver a set of readable and useful studies by making the project user-oriented.

    6. Provide a scope for feedback on the work and make it grow with user’s suggestions.

    BIBLIOGRAPHY
    Norvin Hein's
    THE MIRACLE PLAYS OF MATHURA

    Richard Schechner’s
    BETWEEN THEATER AND ANTHROPOLOGY

    Philip Lutgendorf ’s
    THE LIFE OF A TEXT: PERFORMING THE RAMCARITMANAS OF TULSIDAS

    Anuradha Kapur’s
    ACTORS , PILGRIMS , KINGS AND GODS : THE RAMLILA OF RAMNAGAR

    Articles :

    - SOUTH BY SOUTH TEXT : by Kishore Mahbubani

    - RAMAYANA IN THE HEART OF MYANMAR


    History

    RAMLILA IN DELHI-THE BEGINNING
    Have you, by any chance, passed through the Sitaram Bazar in Delhi? If not, do make a visit to the market. If yes, you must have noticed the architecture of the area. It seems that every brick of the area is full of history. But, I was struck by something else. During my first ever visit to the area, it was the nomenclature of the bazaar that left me spellbound. Wandering in the kuchas and katras of the walled city for 40 days, I hoped to discover a building in that area that is supposed to have a very close relationship with the beginnings of Ramlila in Delhi .

    The building I am still in search of, is the kothi of Lala Sitaram, the person after whom the market is named .Starting with a long walk around the market, with eyes wide open, I tried to establish some links with the other medieval monuments that stood there.

    But, of no avail. The Vaish Trust had records of lalas who had been there in the early 20th century. However, the lala I want to trace is much more older. On asking some of the chachas ( they are the guys whom researchers catch hold of for some first hand information), they could only go as far as their own contemporary Chacha Nehru. If it interests you, the sasuraal (in-laws’ house) of the first Prime Minister of the Republic of India is situated on the same street .

    When an 85 year old appeared clueless on my question regarding the lala’s place, I was disappointed. He replies that since the time he came into this world, he has been living and earning his living in Sitaram Bazar. He never wondered that there was a person by that name .Instead, belief in Lord Rama became the cause of his ignorance relating to the name of his janmabhoomi and karmabhoomi

    But, I do not blame him. For, he enlightens me about the significant role of Ramlila in reinforcing the continued historical presence of Ramyana’s historicity in Indian popular consciousness.

    When Muhammad Shah ‘Rangila’ (1702-1748) ascended the throne of Delhi in 1719, he asked for a loan towards the royal treasury from Lala Sitaram. Clinching the opportunity, it is said, the businessman proposed a deal to the Emperor . In return for the money lent, he obtained the permission for the stagery of Ramlila at his bungalow in the Sitaram Bazar. My search aimed at confirming the occurrence of this incident.

    Then, in the last quarter of the 18th century, some Hindu soldiers in the Mughal army under Shah Alam-II started celebrating a Ramlila on the Banks of Yamuna. Again, no records in my knowledge back the authenticity of the statement made.

    Finally, as I am helpless to move closer to our times in absence of any evidence, I take up the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar ( the last emperor of the Mughal dynasty ) i.e. 1837-1857. Fortunately, after a struggle for the address, I succeed in locating the present generation of the Raj Pandit of the Emperor’s Darbar. Mahant Raghav Das Ji Maharaj expressed his desire to the Muslim ruler to celebrate the Hindu tradition of Ramlila. Bahadur Shah not only agreed, but also decided to provide some funds for the event. At this time, the festival was conducted on a very limited scale in the Old Subzi Mandi area .

    As it expanded , the Hindu business class took over the responsibility for arranging the funds .Soon, the Muslim rule came to an end. But, the lila continued. British took over the administration. When they inaugurated the city of New Delhi as their capital, the venue of the Ramlila shifted to a huge field separating the old and the new Delhi. This ground is our very own Ramlila Maidaan – the centre of protest. Till date, the epic continues to be staged at the venue on Asaf Ali Road. The lila is popularly known as ‘Badi Ramlila ’.

    Till 1923, the mahants in association with the merchant-patrons continued to carry forward the tradition. That year is a milestone in the history of Ramlila in capital. The first ever Ramlila Committee was formed by the name of ‘Sri Ramlila Committee’. Its membership was as diverse as the composition of population of Delhi. Brahmins, Khatris and Baniyas, along with some of the Muslims were a part of the organisation .

    However, soon differences emerged between the members of the committee and it split into two factions. Baniya group moved out, forming a committee of its own. Initially, they shifted to the place where we have the Lajpat Rai market now, before moving to the present venue. Performed at the Subhash Maidaan ( earlier known as Parade Maidaan ), this production later came to be registered as ‘Sri Dharmic Lila Committee’. Interestingly, while the Vaishya faction witnessed a geometrical proliferation of Ramlila committees out of it such as the Navshri Dharmic Lila committee and Sanatan Dharmalila Committee, the Khatri group of the first Ramlila committee has hardly seen any split .In 1938, it became the first committee to get registered under the Societies’ Act. Along with that, it enforced a constitution which defined the powers and functions of the members.

    It is noteworthy that this Ramlila was accompanied by a lila procession since the period of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who gave permission for the expansion of the journey of Lord Rama’s chariot (of wooden horses with silver carvings) to the city region including Red fort. The artists who used to play the lila at the maidaan would be seated on the ratha along with the mahants. The procession began in the afternoon, passing through the city, and reached the venue in the evening . After the performance, it would return back late night to the place from where it had started.

     With the Lal Qila coming under the control of the British in 1857 (after the great revolt ), the English restrained the Lila procession to pass through the fort as they had established a cantonment there. However, a 1915 letter by the Englishman D.S. Hadow, Esquire, Superintendent of Police, Delhi Province, suggests that although the cultural policy of the British was suppressive, the importance of the procession was so great that even the officer of such a rank seems extremely concerned about the security arrangements on the route of the yatra. You can estimate the status of the mahant by the fact that the SP addressed him as 'Sir', asking him to meet at the Town Hall chambers for deciding on the procession’s route.

    Why I explain these details is for the reason that today, the procession that was once a spectacle attracting people from around the country is in a miserable state. The point of the origination of the chariot journey is more commonly known for the bicycles that stand along its door. The Ancient Ram Temple on the Esplanade Road (No. 469-70) receives its address by the name of the cycle market which postdates it by at least 75 years.

    The road too has lost the meaning of its term. Yamuna, that once used to flow along it, has been pushed backwards. Once, the road was full of temples only. Today, each temple has shops on both the sides with just the doors of the temples being visible. I would have missed the historic temple of my interest if there had not been this helpful man guiding me .

    2001 was the last time that the journey began from here. The present mahant of the peeth
    (which is two centuries old), Pandit Ram Krishna Sharma is disheartened, both about the condition of the procession and the political activities within the committee. With dozens of stories to tell, he presents before me papers stamped by the Government of Delhi, bestowing absolute privileges on the mahants through the Committee’s constitution, which has been violated by the present General Secretary.

    The wooden horses are broken, gilded costumes have been lost, silver carvings have been missing. But, it is not in these precious metals that I find the loss. The real value of the loss of heritage can be measured in the pain of the voice of Mr. Subhash. C. Aggarwal. He is the same helpful man whom I mentioned above as my guide.

    His memories cherish the procession, of which he has been a witness to since his childhood. The temple is a few steps away from his house in a kucha in Dariba Kalan. An RTI activist and the Guinness Book record holder of maximum letters to editors of newspapers , the man ( in his 60s) continues to fight for the battle from his own front – the power of pen .

    He has repeatedly lodged complaints with the administration. But, his questions remain unanswered (as against the assurance of replies by the government website).

    He is also concerned about the preservation of sacredness of the institution. Appeals for efficient use of the funds are pending too. Moreover, he is hurt at the increasing vulgarity in some of the productions. Fortunately, a court ruling prevented the inclusion of obscene content in Ramlila performances in Delhi.

    He cites the example of a performance at Haridwar where Ravana was shown enjoying with a cabaret dancer.

    Enough. For, the origins I mean.

    PRECURSORS AND PROTO-TYPES
    In one of the very first works on Ramlila, Norvin Hein, while discovering the seeds of this theatrical tradition, has identified an ancestor for Ramlila performances in an ancient style of Vaishnava ballet that was patronized by the royalty of the period.

    This dance – drama form of recreation may have flourished in the Mathura region, during the early centuries of the Christian era. But, what is more striking is that its presumed folk descendant is separated by almost a millennium in the textual records. Some Ramayana-based performances have been recorded in the early sixteenth century Orissa.

    TULSIDAS AND HIS CONNECTION TO LILA
    The text on which the present pattern of Ramlila is based, Ramcharitamas was written by Goswami Tulsidas (1532-1623). He is supposed to have heard the tales of Lord Rama’s exploits from his teacher Narhari Das. The form of stagery which is practised today had first originated in Varanasi (not very far from the birthplace of the saint) during or after the lifetime of the author. A reference to one of the contemporaries of  Tulsidas, Megha Bhagat  (or Narayandass) is also made in this context.

    While one school is of the view that Bhagat had been staging the Ramlila based on Valmiki’s Ramayana before Tulsidas approached him, another more popular version designates Tulsidas as the master of Megha Bhagat. It suggests that on the death of his guru, the disciple started the stagery to carry forward the tradition.

    Philip Lutgendorf has made a an important point in this regard, “..it must be noted that the legends that credit Tulsidas with the founding of the Ramlila in Benaras are associated with the claims of specific productions to being the city’s original or adilila Although the organizing committee of Tulsighat production dates back only to 1933, it still claims to continue a tradition begun by the poet himself .”

    When I was attempting to define the oldest Ramlila (restricting the area of study to the modern National Capital Territory of Delhi), I found the above made observation by Lutgendorf quite useful.

    All written records and archives that I went through reveal the lila which began during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar and later came to be recognized as ‘Sri Ramlila Committee (Registered)’, popularly known as the Badi Ramlila and held at the Ramlila Maidaan.

    Though, some legends glorify Tulsidas for being the person who laid the foundation of Ramlila even in Delhi (during the rule of Akbar). However, neither was I able to locate the Gurwalon ki Dharmashala which is said to have, contemporarily, been the centre of his activity, nor do any record suggests the existence of a ‘staged’ lila before Bahadur Shah Zafar’s period. Even if there was any practice of bhakti directed to Lord Rama, it remained of the nature of a satsang

    STATE, SUPPORT and START
    The view that Ramlila began as a reaction to the mass conversion of Hindus (after the establishment of Muslim rule in India) continues to be the dominant one. Islam with its ideal of universal brotherhood , emerged as an alternative . It appealed to the low caste followers of Hinduism, who preferred conversion over oppression.
    It was then that the wealthy Hindus decided to promote their very own Katha of spiritual egalitarianism, which told that a Kevat or a Shabari had an access to God equal to the one enjoyed by the likes of Sugreeva or Vibhishana .

    If we make a closer observation of the distribution of temporal power during the 17th century India, we will conclude that although the Mughals enjoyed paramount power, they did not exercise centralized control. This statement turns even more apt for the 18th century. While the Emperor at Delhi continued to legitimize the claims of tribute-payers, there had emerged many levels of government. For instance, the Nawabs of Awadh acknowledged the supremacy of Mughals. At the same time, they allowed a number of local chieftains to administer over the areas within Awadh such as Mirzapur .

    So while the higher levels remained in Muslim hands, Hindu rajas held sway in their principalities. Hence , even if the centre showed resistance to the spread of Hindu culture, the interior remained close to its cultural heritage, nourishing it through the celebration of Ramlila.

    Lila was a sort of devotional practice that did not require elaborate superstructures as temples or shrines. Thus, it could not be a soft target for the orthodox courtiers who were against idol worship.
    Also, the sadhus ( saints ) who undertook the responsibility of spreading this tradition did not settle anywhere permanently. This wandering nature of their life made it difficult for the state to regulate their activities.

    As the Mughal power declined, the Hindu princes in distant provinces began to assert their autonomy. This act was supplemented by deliberate expression of an identity distinct from the Islamic culture at capital. One of such forms of expression was patronage to what is the present day style of (Ramcharita) Manas exposition.

    Here, I would like to cite the classic example of Benaras, where its 18th century rulers made a remarkable contribution towards the conservation and promotion of both Manas and Ramlila.

    Following is a brief account of the rulers of the dynasty : -

    1. Manas Ram Singh : Ascended the throne in 1717 .

    2. Balvant Singh

    3. Name not known

    4. Udit Narayan Singh : 
    Reorganized the local Ramlila into a month-long elaborate performance .

    5. Ishvariprasad Narayan Singh :
    His reign ( 1821-1829) is referred to as ‘the Golden Age of Manas’ . He himself authored a commentary on the work.

    6. Prabhu Narayan Singh :
    Came out with publications of his father’s works.

    Listed below are the factors of special significance that made me highlight, particularly, the kingdom of Benaras : -

    (i) The later rulers of this dynasty claimed to be Brahmins. This claim can be explained as a desire to rise from the obscure origins to a higher political status. And , ritual activities such as presence at ceremonies such as Ramlila as the political head was a mode to the aimed status.

    (ii) Sovereignty (and independence from paying tribute) was one of the powers that every king would want to enjoy. When the rulers of Benaras decided to break away from the paramount powers, they devised various means for the purpose. For example, the use of the title ‘Maharaja’ before their names. Similarly, they sought to win the support of their subjects and derive legitimacy to their authority by proposing Ramraj to be their objective.

    Again, I need to put forth two important points in relation to the above stated factor and the choice of deity to be followed that was made by the ‘Maharajas’ of Benaras : -

    (a) Geography plays its part in bhakti. Located in proximity to the birthplace of Ram (Ayodhya in eastern U.P.) and the being the home of the Manas, it became natural for the Hindu dynasty that arose in the area to patronize Ram-related traditions.

    (b) While Lord Krishna’s image was of a divine cowherd, Ram’s reign serves as an example for any ruler. Association with the Suryavanshi royal family was made to provide validity to the rule.

    (iii) Introduction of printed editions of Manas by this dynasty widened the readership of the work and, more importantly, created a new patronage for it. Ironically, the result was a fall in importance of royal support.

    Language had an unparalleled role in supplying funds for the Ramlila. The Ramayana of Valmiki had been written in Sanskrit, which was, primarily the language of religious elite – the uppermost varna of Brahmins. Demand for a vernacular version came in the picture when the newer patrons (especially the mercantile class) expressed their desire to appreciate the epic. After all, Ramlila was to be enjoyed in devotion, and understanding would only enhance this enjoyment .

    It must be noted that while all these developments were taking place in Uttar Pradesh, the capital remains in picture with the rule at the center directing, actively or in a passive manner, the activities in the provinces .

    After the downfall of Mughal empire, the British took over the reins in their hands. This alien rule was even more harsh on the Hindu culture than the previous one.

    So , now you know why there was only a single British (in Elizabeth) when Lagaan’s Bhuvan and company perform the krishna Lila.

    With power shifting from Hindu to Muslim hands, native to foreign hands, and conservative to liberal hands , patronage was given or withdrawn in accordance with respective interests.
    But, with India becoming a free and secular state in 1947, Ramlilas came to be recognized as national festivals. Today, even international organizations such as UNESCO have come forward for the promotion of Ramlila. Recently (in 2006-07), the UNO’s body gave the status of ‘Heritage of Humanity’ to Ramlila and granted Rs. 5 crores to the Government of India for its conservation .


    VARIETY:THE SPICE OF LILA
    Usually, it is the bright half of the Ashvin month (culminating in Dussehra) which is referred to as the time of Ramlila. But, in a recreational observance like Ramlila, calendar unit shifts from the day to the year. The cycle of festivals expands as it incorporates specific events in the mythology of the cult of Lord Rama, thereby forming an annual lila cycle revolving around the places ( pilgrimages) where Lord Rama moved. For example, His birth is commemorated at Ayodhya on Ram Navami .

    Similarly , the wedding of Lord Rama with Sita is celebrated on Vivaah Panchami in Mithila .This is a much more elaborated lila. Pilgrims to Janakpur (Nepal) form members of Ram’s baraat. During the month of November/December, the bride’s hometown is all set for the bash. However, the baraatis are on the receiving end of bashing. This is actually a ritual in which humorous insults are exchanged between the two parties.
    The tradition continues till date and is a part of the marriage ceremonies. Known as gaaliyaan in Bihar and sitthaniyaan in Punjab, these scurrilous songs create a lively atmosphere. I provide one example each from the two regions.

    Mithila nagariya mein gali gali sor
        Shyam rang dulha , dulhan rang gor


    Saade te vede… boota angoor da
        Munda te lagge jiwen pedh khajoor da
        Jodi ae jachadi nahi

    You can make it out from the commonality of the two songs that the bride Sita is being praised for her beauty. On the other hand, Rama is said to be not a fit match. The philosophy behind the ritual is to protect the couple from any evil eye.

    Another lila event in this calendar is Diwali which is most famously celebrated in Chitrakut . The town is all lit up to commemorate ‘the return of the king.

    It is important to understand that Ramlila is produced on different scales. And, the importance of a particular place ( as associated to the presence of Lord Rama for a part/event of the lila ) is one of the factors that determine the extent of enactment. Accordingly, it can range from being symbolic gesture to an elaborate activity.
    Ramlila is more developed in the Hindi speaking areas of Northern India. Merchant groups brought it to Garhwal hills from the plains .Now, Pahari Hindus have taken it up. Similarly, the Hindus of Haryana and Rajasthan have adopted the institution.

    In Punjab, Sangrur was a prominent centre of lila celebration. In the pre-partition undivided Punjab, villages such as Bhimbar near Lahore too performed the epic as a part of the annual festive season.

    The Hindi speaking communities have transplanted it to the cities of Calcutta and Mumbai. Hmm.. I wonder how Raj Thackeray would react on that. While the Sena family is fond of policing the path of Hindu culture to be followed, it surely will find itself in a dilemma , when the choice will be between obliging a legendary tradition and losing the regional identity.

    In Orissa, the Ramlila is celebrated in the bright half of Chaitra month, not Ashvin. Natural colours are used to paint the faces and masks are made use of .

    However, these Ramlilas lack the status of an almost universally patronized and community-wide event as in Uttar Pradesh. It can be inferred that the popularity and patronage of Ramlila is co-extensive with that of the Manas. Strikingly, one can observe four different schools of Ramlila within U.P. These are as follows:-

    1. pantomimic : predominance of tableaux pageants i.e. jhaankis. Varanashi is its hotspot.

    2. dialogue-based : the dialogues written during the 19th century translate the ras of the text with multi-local staging. Ramnagar represents this school.

    3. Operatic : drawing musical elements from folk operas of the region.

    4. Stage : played by professional troupes such as those of Ayodhya.

    Indians, at the beginning of the first millennium, traveled to Java and Suvarna islands. Hereby, they initiated the foundation of powerful kingdoms that came to rule south East Asia in the coming centuries. In the courts of Srivijaya Kingdom (7th - 12th century A.D.) and Majapahit kingdom (13th -16th century), tales of Ramayana were recounted in the performances.
    (Ah! So now you know how a 'monkey God' pendant came to be the lucky charm of the democrat presidential candidate for the 2008 elections in USA. The 'coloured' American spent his childhood in these Indonesian islands).

    I have attempted to simplify the description of spread of this cultural heritage across the seas through the photographs and table given below:

    Islamic religion was against the display of God in human form. That is why the shadow play came to the fore. To further suppress the worship of any deity, leather dolls were made to give the effect needed.

    Coming back to Delhi, the capital boasts of the some of the most grand productions in India. Different committees come up with different attractions.
    There are two streets in Delhi named after Ramlila - one in Mehrauli and the other in Shahdara Let me start with this unique Ramlila celebrated in Chipivada Dariba Kalan. It is held during the Pitrpaksh i.e. during the shraadha days. Dussehra is celebrated on the final kanaagat.
    Ramlila Maidaan has, with time, moved more towards the mela affair. Its popularity has been on a decline.
    Subhash Maidaan, on the other hand, maintains a balance. New lesser known episodes from the epic are added every year and the effigies command attention. But, it is the chaat bazaar that makes it more popular.

    Grandchildren of both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi prefer to go into the crowd and enjoy the delicacies, rather that having them at their service.
    Lavkush Ramlila is renowed for inviting celebrities. It also hires troupes from outside Delhi such as the all-men team from Vrindavan.

    Then, there are other committees that organize competitions such as Rangoli, debating, quiz, singing, athletics etc. Some are known for the fireworks. Keeping pravachan by star speakers is also catching on .

    Although the grandeur of such productions might be attracting thousands of people, but the real significance of Ramlila for an average Delhiite is better suggested by hundreds of neighborhood productions played along by-lanes, pavements and in fallow fields.

    Organised by various ethnic communities - Paharis, Biharis, Jats and Punjabis in their own localities, these efforts win hands down when compared to the productions that are laid back enough to import artists from Moradabad and Bareilly.

    CELEBRATING DELHI: AN INTERVIEW with Jatthedaar Avatar Singh, Chief organiser, Navyuvak Ramlila Committee, Kashmere Gate.
    Jatthedaar Avataar Singh (49) is a trader in auto parts. Back in 1972, when he had just stepped into teenage, Singh with some of his friends in the neighborhood, started the celebration of Ramlila. Today, the lila has moved out of the street. The effort has grown too. It is the only Ramlila Committee in Delhi honoured with the 'Dilli Gaurav Puraskaar' And the prize of pride is visible in the eyes of the mahamantri of the Navyuvak Ramlila Committee (Kashmere Gate). Meet Avataar Singh, the founder member who has also portrayed the character of classical villain Ravana, since he was 13 years old, for 30 years consecutively.

    Q. Where did the idea of starting a Ramlila come from??

    A. Well, we used to have a performance fo Ramlila at Kashmere Gate before we started in 1972. This was a celebration by Garhwalis. The thought of starting with the committee came out of the desire to have a Ramlila of our own area. Once we did it, the Garhwalis shifted to another locality.

    Q. Could you tell us about how he whole thing evolved to its present state??

    A. The beginnings belong to this street (where he still resides) with a budget of Rs. 95 only.
    Slowly, as we moved out from here to the payment along the road outside, we had some sponsors coming. By then, our fund had reached around Rs.15,000. In 1993, we shifted our base to the present location. Today, our budget is Rs. 2 lakhs.

    Q. Isn't it minuscule when compared to the productions that run into millions??

    A. The size of the main gate of the lila venue of some of the grand productions is greater than the size of the ground we perform at. The cost of their welcome dwaar the total budget of our production. Neither we keep dance shows for the 10-day festival, nor do we offer any delicious chaat to the audience.
    But, people who want the unadulterated taste of the traditional Ramlila that teaches the importance of family values and human relations through the depiction of maryada purushottama Rama, visit our place to devote themselves to him.

    Q. Are there any specific attractions, especially when the venue is too small??

    A. Lower capacity provides for higher clarity. Huge grounds make it impossible for the viewers to even identify the characters on stage. Here, you will not find any celebrity overshadowing the artist. 
    Presence of any high-profile guest is not marketed as an attraction. His/her attendance is confined to any other devotee of Lord Rama. There are no giant wheels that can be a possible distraction with the packed crowd roaring on them .
    We strive to fulfill the wish and purpose of the visits of our admirers. And that is pure enjoyment of the Ramlila. Just that.

    Q. How is the Navyuvak Ramlila Committee different from other committees??

    A. Ours is a totally non-commercial Ramlila committee. All the funds are the sum of contributions of the members themselves.

    Besides, the core 365-day functioning team, few loyal sponsors, most of them our regular business contacts, such as the Auto Parts Merchants’ Association (A.P.M.A.) continue to donate the committee. Formal membership can be attained by contributing a minimum of Rs. 101.

    We do not allow any eateries to be sold within the venue’s premises. Even some of the smaller rides kept in the ground are not charged but paid. Younger kids from the families of our own neighbourhood have fun on these swings. We do not want business out of it. After all, Ramlila is all about the spirit of celebration .

    Q. What is it that distinguishes your production technically??

    A. Be it the content (text), the sets or the technology used, things have been kept as simple as the can be. Simplicity is our specialty. For instance, the traditional technique of using painted cloth (purda) is used for changing the backdrop of the stage with the switching of scenes.

    Q. Do you hire any professionals for the purpose??

    A. From acting to back staging, preparing the effigies to handling the costume department, and direction to event management, it is the same young team of 70 people who put up the production. Even the make-up artists are from within the group.
    The only people hired for the event are the tent wallahs who also serve as the complementary lights-men. They are from a company in Meerut. Years of association has not only made them well-versed with the demands of our production, but also transformed them from being any external help into the members of Navyuvak family.

    Q. What kind of support, if any, does the government provide you with??

    A. As a reward to our efforts, organizations under the state government such as the Hindi Academy, Urdu Academy and Punjabi Academy perform during the festival. Evets as Kavi sammelan, Qawwali are enjoyed by the audience. Also, Sahitya Kala Parishad and Song and Drama Division of the Government of India perform puppetry and folk music programs for our committee.

    Q. How do you rate the performance of your artists ? What is the factor that differentiates them??

    A. As far as the play part of it is concerned, it is the dedication of our navyuvaks, the student-members that brings our quality in our work.
    They start rehearsing two months before the Navratri festival. Allocation of roles, arranging the script material, and co-ordination between the cast is carried out systematically by themselves.

    Q. What do the youngsters gain out of this experience??

    A. The young members do this work for free. Instead they contribute from their own pockets. Participation in the event develops the personality of the children. Performing before a 1500 plus crowd means a lot. It boosts their confidence and power to express .In this competitive world, they will have an edge in a Group Discussion or a Personal Interview. 

    Thank You so much for your time . Our foundation is proud of the job you have done and wishes you all the best for future .


    More importantly, I conclude, it is the consciousness that these students gain regarding the richness of the heritage of their country, culture and city. They realize the need to take responsibility of its conservation.

    PRODUCTION AND ITS ECONOMICS
    PROPS AND PREPARATIONS:
    Exaggerated jewellery (the headgear being of prime importance as far as the royal characters are concerned), costumes and make - up are some of the distinct charcteristics of traditional threatre. The drama part of if is characterized by popular folk tales, music, mime, poetry and epic narrations.

    With developments in communication technology, over the time, we have witnessed the emergence of many newer forms of communication. While media such as animation, video and special effects pose a tough competition to the traditional medium of stage, some of the bigger productions have adopted these techniques to enhance their popularity and simultaneously, enlarge the scale of the show. And, with the sponsors pouring in the money, funds are not an issue. Resources are, increasingly, being spent on mechanical stage properties.

    Besides, with the crowds growing larger, mass communication has also come into use. Lavkush Ramlila Committee collaborated with the TV Channel Saadhana broadcasting live telecast of its performances. The same committee is the only Ramlila committee having a website. This tool, too was exploited well with 30-minute clips of all days of Ramlila performance being uploaded for online viewers.

    Others, not so hi-tech, employed giant screens to cater their huge audience. It is not an easy task to manage such large crowds. That is why the Close circuit TV cameras were installed at some of the venues.

    Though, it must not be assumed that the IT revolution has brought about a break with the past. Such an argument cannot be taken. Take the Chitrakoot presentation. Conventions continue to be the deciding factor in areas like costuming and make-up. For the scenes of forest exile, natural ornaments such as parrot feather crown for Lakshmana with garlands made of  tulsi  leaves are, still, chosen as the best embellishments.

    Even today, in many of the old productions, male members continue to portray female characters on stage. This tradition, however, is endangered.
    Similarly, in the Ramnagar Ramlila, till date, 12 ramayanis chant from the first word of Manas till the birth of Ravana before starting with the theatrical portion of the lila. It is natural in the form of prepared environments as per the demand of setup required for a particular scene is exceptional. Scholars and tourists from around the world make it a point to visit Ramnagar during their trip to India in the Ashvin month.

    PROCESSION AND PROFESSION :
    While Ramlila may appear to be a leisure activity, it means business to some. Can you believe it? a halwai who buys a space for the 10-day festival at the venue pays as much as Rs. 20 lakhs. The commerce is more strategic. Although they might not even recover their costs out of the sales during Ramlila, the event serves as a medium of brand credibility and results in huge profits through orders throughout the year.

    At a small level too, the festival provides seasonal employment to many. The best example can be the people in Benaras who run the boats that take the spectators across the river Ganga for the performances in Ramnagar.

    Similarly, acting troupes, technicians and effigy-makers (a number of them can be found in Tilak Nagar in West Delhi during the month that precedes the event) earn a living out of the celebrations.

    Finding it difficult to meet enough artists (as most of them come from outside Delhi or are temporary in the field with no organized association), I tried taking some clues out of the shopkeepers in Kinari Bazar (who too make some business out of Ramlila).
    However, they viewed me with suspicion after my enquiry about the amount and composition of sales. Soon, I was shooed away as they feared me to be a tax inspector.

    ORGANISATION AND COMMITTEES
    UNITED WE STAND:

    So why does a production need to organize itself into a committee?

    A committee, generally, consists of administrative members. They are the people who get the work of obtaining the permits from agencies like the municipal body, DDA, police authorities etc. Without the approval of these bodies, the production cannot be staged. Thus, it becomes necessary to have an administration in order to deal with them.

    Moreover, in the case of all registered Ramlila committees, it is on the name of the committee or its office holders that the licence is issued.

    Also, some of the offices are reserved as honorary positions for the main sponsors.

    As far as having a joint body is concerned, various issues made these societies work from a united platform so that a collective voice could be raised for resolution of their problems.

    Established under the presidency of S.S. Aggarwal in 1997, one of the problems the Ramlila Mahasangh was able to sort out was the difference on tithi of the festival. Co-ordination between scholars and pundits calculating the panchaang through a common dais has led to the arrival on a consensus.

    OVER AND OUT :

    Ramlila, in Delhi that is, is a seasonal phenomenon. For the remaining part of the year, the committees act as organizations promoting social work. Many of them have taken up the responsibility to uplift the status of women (did Sita's suffering/ proving her chastity in the climax of lila influence such a decision?).

    Female education is on top of the agenda. Monetary help is provide to poor families for marriage of their daughters.

    Besides, campaigns such as adopting orphans, contributing to relief funds in the times of calamity and blood donation camps are undertaken.

    Other charitable activities are also undertaken such as bhandaaraas.

    SHAUQ OR SHAUKA, BUT IT'S SHOCKING :

    A deeper study of the people in-charge of Ramlilas in Delhi reveals the dominance of members from Vaishya section of society. Listen to this. 8 of the top 10 offices of the joint body of the Ramlila committees, the Mahasangh, are held by Baniyas.

    Some of the committees are totally dominated by them. The Subhash Maidaan lila is a fort of the local Vaishyas. The Navshri Dharmik Leela Committee, on the other hand, is controlled by Marwaris. Vaish builders are running the Lavkush production.

    While some people say that interest (shauq) in religious affairs has always been characteristic to this community, others point out that holding an office in a Ramlila committee spells prestige and power (shaukat) as association with political bigwigs brings them closer to the mould of netas and whitens their collar.

    I sum up with a directory of the Ramlila committees (arranged alphabetically) registered with the Mahasangh. Take a look and notice their domination.


    About the Author:
    Ankit Chadha is a student of History at Hindu College. Also, the President of Dramatics society of his college (Ibtida), he has been doing theatre since last 5 years.

    He has written and directed 4 street plays, all of which have been acclaimed and rewarded. Besides, he has been a part of 5 stage productions as well, with performances at GC University, Lahore; IIT-Powai, IIT-Kanpur, BITS Pilani, National School of Drama, Dilli Haat, Arts Faculty (DU) and dozens of other colleges.

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