I first heard about Ramlila of Ramnagar when I was in Varanasi last year. And I saw the masks used in Ram Lila at the Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum at BHU. This was followed by some stories that I heard at the new Jnanpravah museum. The curator here explained the shortest drama in the world of Bharat Milap of Ramlila. The way he explained the Ram Lila, it was very emotional.
Incidentally, soon after I got to hear the Ramayan sung at the Lila. All this put together aroused enough curiosity in me to go, and Google for it. I landed upon a book that was written way back in 1978-79. It captures the 30 days Lila in as much detail as possible. Coincidentally, as I was reading the book as the Lila must be getting performed in Ramnagar, before Dussehra.
History and Essence of Ramlila of Ramnagar
The book starts by bringing out the history and essence of Ramlila. The author describes the process of Ramlila that starts many months before the actual performance. She talks how the whole town converts into a stage and various places play the role of various venues of the story.
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It talks about the patronage of Maharaja of Varanasi that led to this performance being conceived and enacted in the first place. It has been played since then every year. The Maharaja participates as a king, as a patron, as a devotee, and as an audience. The Lila happens only when he or his family representative is present. There are certain scenes that he does not see as it is not appropriate for a king to see them.
She describes in detail the process of choosing the main characters called Swarupas that are essentially young boys who play key roles. For the time of Lila, they almost attain a God-like status. They are treated in the same fashion.
Their training begins many months in advance when they are made to learn the text. Many key roles like that of Ravana are played by certain families. This position passes from one generation to another in the family.
Smaller roles are played by anyone. Sometimes even someone from the audience jumps up and plays it. Masks and material for the scenes are commissioned or refurbished every year. There are families who devote the better part of their year building and maintaining Ramlila material.
30 Days Performance
For 30 days Ram Lila is performed every day for about 5-7 hours. The scenes move from one place to another and the audience move with it. Sometimes parallel scenes happen. In this case, the audience choose what to see.
It is amazing to see the intense involvement of the audience even when they know the story so well. Regular watchers even know the dialogues. On some popular days, there are large crowds that turn up from nearby areas.
A team of Ramayanis i.e. the singers who sing Ramayana, sing it along with the enactment. In a synchronized way they sing and then the enactment happens. The Lila completes only after the complete text has been sung.
As a book, Ramlila of Ramnagar, it is quite boring to read. Unless the Ramlila intrigues you so much that you would be willing to go through the process. The pictures would have made the book much more meaningful. Plus, it would have required much less text. But I guess the one I have is an old edition and hence no pictures.
There are diagrams that explain the stage of the scene being described. There is a lot of repetition like the times when audience moves from one place to another, or when the Lila breaks to allow the Maharaja do his evening Aarti or the daily Aarti that marks the end of the day for Lila.
Ramlila of Ramnagar is a brilliant documentation of the performing arts of the country that are so intricately woven with the socio-historical ethos of the country. I suggest you read the first and last chapter that beautifully describe the essence of Lila. Then, randomly read a few chapters that may carry your favorite parts of the Ramayana Story.