In 300 BCE, it is said, lived a thief, a kind of a highway robber called Valmiki. One day he tried to rob a sadhu, a wandering holy man, who had nothing to offer him so he gave him a mantra ‘Mara’. When Valmiki, in his distracted moments chanted it, he realised he was not saying mara-mara-mara but rama-rama-rama and that’s when he decided to write down the story of Lord Rama into an epic called Ramayana.
Handed down over generations, this story is enacted as Ramlila all over North India during the 10 days of Dussehra. It is the story of an exiled king Rama, wife Sita and half brother Laxman. Rama, the most virtuous, kind, generous, ethical soul ever, fights the Demon King Ravana who has abducted Sita and kept her imprisoned, in the hope that one day she will see how exciting it can be to be married to him. He’s got Demon ethics too, so he won’t force her, just wait for her to see reason.
Anyway, Lord Rama, assisted by Laxman, and the Monkey God Hanuman (now an international celebrity), manages to locate her and destroy the evil Ravana.
Post Dussehra Rama’s return to his Kingdom after 14 years of exile, is celebrated on the day of Diwali in the entire North India when people light candles outside their houses and burst firecrackers making enough noise to keep the Gods up through the night. For 9 days before Dusshera, villages, small towns, small neighbourhoods in big cities, organise an abridged stage enactment of Ramlila… triumph of good over evil.
After many years of ignoring this childhood indulgence of watching the Ramlila, last year I decided to get a glimpse of it on Dussehra, the last day of Ramlila. As a symbolic representation of the fight and to leave no doubt in the mind of the audience about the winner of the tournament, massive effigies of Ravana and his evil brothers are burnt at the end of the play. Real blood cannot be shed onstage and we are suckers for drama, so this is the high point of those 10 days of stage play.
There were two separate entries, one for the residents of that neighborhood who had passes and were seated on upholstered chairs in a barricaded area, and the other one for the have-nots. They were provided sand and grass to sit on.
In India, entries to privileged enclosures, such as this one are very very tiny so that only one person can squeeze through. The assumption is that given a chance we will break the single file and try to get ahead of the massive crowds, also giving an opportunity to the have-nots to slip through unnoticed.
The truth is that the tendency to be unruly when required to be in a queue, is startlingly high and cuts across barriers of economic class, education, and profession. I recently shot at the Fashion Week in Delhi and it was the same. There were bouncers attached to the doors which could possibly be opened really wide, in case of fire or a terrorist attack, but were kept open to a 2ft width so that ‘passes’ can be checked and the wanna-haves be duly thrown out. We also like to squeeze unmanageable crowds in tiny spaces and keep them waiting for as long as it takes to exhaust the available oxygen.
It was six in the evening. I wanted to step out and take some pictures from the other side of the barricade and had to explain to the guard to let me back in later. I walked amidst the growing crowd in falling light. Ravana and co. looked tall and handsome. Their bottoms were still being stuffed with flammable materials. Little kids were running amok with their cardboard swords, bows and arrows. Harried mothers were pointing fiercely at the evil brothers and explaining to their children that the same fate awaits naughty kids. Adolescent girls were giggling uncontrollably at flirtatious groups of young men. It was quite picnic-y. Suddenly the loudspeakers came to life. ‘Hello hello testing testing 1-2-3′.
Perhaps testing for the highest possible decibel humans can survive before morphing into plants. Test having succeeded, local politicians took the stage. One after another small fry and big fish from the Bharatiya Janata Party rambled on about Hinduism and it’s supremacy.
The audience fidgeted and grew a little restless. Such speeches are expected during election campaigns but the crowd had gathered for some fun and games. Some yawned, others pretended some interest, and everyone swung into action when the politicians screamed ‘Jai Sri Ram’ (Long live Lord Rama) because that always indicates the end of a political gathering. Having had enough of that, I ventured out where people were swinging over their terraces waiting to get a glimpse of the armies of Rama and Ravana out on the road for a public parade.
The swashbuckling mustachioed evil-doers were riding horses, swinging their swords, laughing manically and posing for pictures at the same time. The holy army was clean-shaven, riding a horse-chariot, smiling complacently with the prior knowledge of their victory. They went around the park a few times and as the crowd starting getting excited, pushing and shoving, I found my way to the stage.
The sun had set, the politicians had taken their seats at the back of the stage and the actors were milling around the two ends where two microphones were placed on stands. The verbal duel between the competing armies started. The dialogues were written in verse and the actors were rather keen performers, who were being prompted by a thin young man sitting at their feet. There wasn’t much the actors could do by way of movement. They were restricted by the two microphones so they sauntered stage left to right to left spearing each other with heavily eyeshadowed glances and returned to their assigned spot to deliver the lines.
When one of them got hit by an arrow he had to catch the arrow and hold fast to it, pretending to lose strength, feet quivering, about to hit the ground, and all that while delivering his parting shot at the microphone. The prompter even had to remind one of the evil brothers that he should fall as it was time to die. He was probably not in the mood, or had a much more evolved philosophy of theatre as he refused to fall and instead staggered into the wings. The hysterics went on for a while and I thought everybody was blissed out with all that religious opium until I heard the prompter telling one of the actors to ‘hurry up’. To make sure his command was heeded to, the prompter just skipped pages and Rama was ready to kill the threatening thundering Ravana in no time.
Many lyrical verbal barbs later Ravana finally got the arrow and Lord Rama went across to light a match to the speechless effigies. Starting with a sputter they went up into an inferno of firecrackers. It was a beautiful sight and a suitably theatrical closing. Everyone got what they wanted. The only person who missed it was Sita, the loyal wife, who kept waiting, in the makeshift makeup room under the stage, to make her Royal entry.