The epic is performed by amateur actors in minute details, and the production travels from locality to locality, performing in a different one every day for 30 days.
The Ramnagar ki Ramlila is the country’s largest moving theatre performance. (Representative image)
Ramnagar ki Ramlila: The month before Dussehra in pre-COVID times was usually lined with local productions of Ramlila being staged in every locality. As technology developed, the productions of Ramlila also started relying on it to make their renditions bigger and better. All except one. In Ramnagar, a town in the Varanasi district, the grandest production of Ramlila in the entire country takes place every year, according to a report in IE. Organised by the Kashi Naresh, or the King of Banaras, who still lives with his family in the Ramnagar fort, this Ramlila moves across the city to different localities throughout the month-long performance. But that is not what is unique about this production.
The epic is performed by amateur actors in minute details, and the production travels from locality to locality, performing in a different one every day for 30 days. The fact that the localities have names like Ashok Vatika, Janakpur and Lanka just adds to the charm of this town. The town is only a boat ride from Varanasi’s ghats and it is a re-imagination of the epic tale of Lord Ram. In fact, the town even has a pond named Ganga. But what sets this production further apart is the fact that little has changed in its format since the first performance dating back to 1830.
The report added that over the years, the Ramlila production has not switched to even using electric lights, and the audience sits on the ground to watch the production. Any member of the audience attempting to click a photo of the Ramlila using a cell phone is also sure to be stopped by the public or the royal guards.
The Ramnagar ki Ramlila is the country’s largest moving theatre performance, and it has been given the tag of UNESCO Intangible Heritage. To view this rendition of the epic tale, audience, theatre professionals and scholars from all over India gather in lakhs every year.
However, even though the town hates to change the way it has been presenting its performance, the pandemic is sure to bring some changes.
Let’s take a look at the significance of the 200-year-old Ramnagar ki Ramlila.
An old form of art
The earliest record of Ramnagar ki Ramlila is a lithograph created by colonial administrator James Princep dating back to 1830, the report stated. However, the scene shown in the lithograph makes it clear from the volume of the audience that the Ramlila was already popular by then. The local belief is that the tradition of this Ramlila was started by Maharaj Balwant Singh in the mid-18th century. Maharaj Balwant Singhw was the great grandfather of Maharaj Udit Narayan Singh, who was ruling the kingdom in 1830. Even as the world became more tech savvy, this never-changing Ramlila is still capable of gathering quite an audience.
A witness and survivor of wars
According to the report, there was constant conflict between Maharaj Udit Narayan and the colonial administration. The report cited royal family member Kunwar Ishaan as saying that the Ramlila was frowned upon by the British because it facilitated large gatherings of Indians. Moreover, at a time when the movement to become independent and overthrow the British rule was gathering steam, a subtext was provided to the people by the story of the war between Lord Ram and Ravana and the triumph of good over evil.
However, the performance of Ramlila did not cease, or even pause, not even during the 1962 war with China. During the war, when there would be blackouts at night, pilots saw lights coming from Banaras, which turned out to be from the lanterns used for the Ramlila performance. When the PMO contacted the Banaras royal family about the issue, they decided to start covering the lanterns with leaves on the top, so that only people on the ground could see the light.
The main actors, young boys hailing from Brahmin families, play the roles of Lord Ram, Goddess Sita and the brother of Lord Ram. It is an all-men production The auditions are held extensively and are also attended by the palace officials and Kashi Naresh. While preparing for the Ramlila over a period of two months, the actors study the Ramayana and live with experts in epics. They are also trained in the different vocal techniques and gestures that would help in their performance. Ramlila workers carry them on their shoulders and do not let their feet touch the floor. During this period, people also gather for their ‘darshan’ and try to touch their feet. Once Ramlila concludes, the actors return to their families.
Ramnagar ki Ramlila: Impact of coronavirus
Due to the pandemic, the performance has been suspended in favour of only reading the Ramcharitmanas in a temple situated in Janakpuri, which is the paternal home of Ramlila’s Sita. The current Kashi Naresh, Maharaj Anant Narayan Singh also tested positive for the infection in September and had been admitted to a Gurugram hospital. While he has now recovered, he is still practicing social distancing with strict discipline.