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Revelry, reverence marks Ram Leela

A Draft Correspondent | Mumbai

The nine nights of Navratri are celebrated across India in various forms and as they mark the victory of good over evil and observed by joyful celebrations across communities. Western states are known to celebrate Navratri by celebrations where revellers dance to the tunes of garba songs and perform dandiya raas while the Eastern states observe Durga Pooja celebrate the various forms of the goddess. In the Northern states, Hindus observe ceremonies and religious festivities across nine days to celebrate the victory of Lord Ram over the evil Ravan who had abducted Sita during their exile.

However, in Mumbai, where people from all parts of the country live and work together, you will see all these celebrations happening at one time.  So, while you have dandiya performances happening at venues across the city, there’s the legendary Ram Leela being performed at key locations on each of the nine nights where the devout throng by thousands.

Ram Leela, a dramatic re-enactment of the life and anecdotes of Lord Rama from the epic Ramayana

Ram Leela, a dramatic re-enactment of the life and anecdotes of Lord Rama from the epic Ramayana, is a dance drama performed by mandalis (performing groups) staged through the nine nights of Navratri. Each night showcases an episode or adhyay from Lord Ram’s life when he set out for exile – his life during exile, abduction of his wife Sita by the evil Ravan from Lanka, Ram’s search for his wife, Hanuman’s devotion towards his Lord Ram, Ram gathering his army to attack Ravan after a failed dialogue, the legendary war between Ram and Ravan and finally killing of Ravan on Dussera, the tenth day when larger-than-life effigies of Ravan, brother Kumbhakaran and son Meghnad are set ablaze to mark the victory of good over evil.

As the performers get ready to come on stage, one of them peeps out of the curtains to see how many have gathered before he ducks back in to ‘tip’ off the director and awaits further instructions. The ground on the other hand gets filled slowly as enthusiasts walk in hurriedly looking for a ‘good seat’. The elderly and the children can be seen anxiously waiting for the act to start. And, once it does, the crowds are rapt in attention and a reverence synonymous with Ramayan. For those viewing Ram Leela, the excitement peaks to a feverish pitch at the end of the nine nights.

The ground on the other hand gets filled slowly as enthusiasts walk in hurriedly looking for a ‘good seat’

Like every other traditional folk art, Ram Leela has sadly been losing its audience over the years to technology and time. Earlier, the grounds used to be thronged with people coming to sit and view Ram Leela in full grandeur over the nine nights. It was part of the festivities during Navratri. Children would often be seen sitting right in the front to get the best view and would applaud and break into a jig at every warranted instance.

In Mumbai, one of the oldest organisers of Ram Leela in the city is the Shri Adarsh Ramleela Samiti that has been organising Ram Leela for the last 54 years at Girgaum Chowpatty. Ashok Chaurasia, a pan-shop owner, who mans the entrance to the Ram Leela venue has been associated with the Samiti for 40 years now. “People have lost interest in this art now. They now prefer watching similar shows on television or on Youtube,” he says with distinct despair. The response is cold despite the fact there are no tickets or entry fee to watch the performance. Which is why people from all walks of life come to see Ram Leela.

Ashok Chaurasia from the organising committee at the entrance of the Ram Leela venue

Borivali resident and a native of Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, Jagannath Patel makes it a point to arrive much before time to see his favourite adhyays. The 86-year-old fruit seller has been coming to watch Ram Leela since he arrived to Mumbai several decades ago. Seated comfortably at his favourite spot in an empty ground he waits for others to join in. He says it’s a different experience altogether to watch Ram Leela here as compared to watching one in his village where often there is no electricity. “The stage is bigger, lights are dazzling and there’s no problem of power outage. Also, here the effects are amazing,” he says. “Kya ladai hoti hai…hanuman idhar se aata hai, ram udhar se and fir raavan aata hai.. Hanuman poora parvat utha leta hai,” he spills over in excitement describing the famous scenes from the drama. He likes coming here because this is something he will never be able to see in his own village back in Uttar Pradesh.

Fruit-seller Jagannath Patel comes every year for all the nine nights

Just as the ground beginning to fill up with sporadic arrival of people, some alone, some with families in tow often even only mothers coming in with their children. Antima Dubey and Sadhna Misra have been coming to see Ram Leela for the last two years since their children were big enough to understand and enjoy Ram Leela and the acts. “Our children love to come here and see the dance drama. They particularly love Hanuman and often get scared of Ravan when he speaks owing to his loud theatrics. Also, it’s one of those rare occasions for us women to move out with our children and without our men even late at the night (The Ram Leelas sometimes end past 12 am). It’s very safe coming here throughout the nine nights,” they speak in unison.

Antima Dubey and Sadhna Misra bring their children for Ram Leela performances

The performing group, Shri Anant Ramleela Mandal from Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, have been coming to Mumbai and performing at Girgaum Chowpatty with the organisers since the beginning itself i.e. since 54 years in all till date. Director of the group Baidyanath Chaturvedi is a busy man backstage. He makes sure all the characters have put on their costumes and make up. The backstage is scattered with costumes and props lying around and the all-male members can be seen busy finalising their appearances before they go on stage. “My father formed the group 80 years ago in Mathura and I helped him ever since, till he left everything to be run by me,” he says with pride. The group performs Ram Leela and travels everywhere in the country for various events to perform the same.

Director of the group Baidyanath Chaturvedi is a busy man backstage

The most intriguing and hated character of Ramayan, King of Lanka, Ravan gets all the attention. Even backstage, Ravan can be identified easily owing to his ‘evil’ make up. Bal Mukund Chaturvedi, who runs a general store in Mathura, has been playing the role of Ravan since 1982 and is comfortable in his character, even if he is the most hated. “Ravan was a man of knowledge but lacked wisdom. He did what he had to do to keep up his image and satisfy his people,” he says in a baritone voice, apt for his character. He has been part of the troupe for the last 45 years and started off by playing Ravan’s son Meghnad till he was ‘promoted’ to play the big role.

Bal Mukund Chaturvedi, who runs a general store in Mathura, has been playing the role of Ravan since 1982

Any folk art is incomplete without music, so is Ram Leela. The troupe has its own musicians who accompany the artists wherever they go. Ram Leela being enactment of the Ramayana, it’s essential to narrate important episodes of the epic story. This is done by Vinod Chaturvedi who speaks the ‘Vyas Peeth’ during the performance to disseminate the wisdom from Ramayan. He is often accompanied by Guddu Khan on dholak and Anwar Khan on naal when he decides to narrate the story in the form of a bhajan or a tune.

Guddu Khan on dholak and Anwar Khan on naal

Here go some more images of the Ram Leela performance, its participants backstage while preparing, the characters during performance and a devout audience in rapt attention at Girgaum Chowpatty:

Performers Backstage

Characters During The Act

And A Devout Audience


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