City Culture – Ramlila, August 15 Ground
The annual multi-starrer Hindu blockbuster.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Totally Shakespearean. It has love, jealousy, greed, lies, betrayal, revenge, war, death and redemption. Ramlila, the 10-day play on the exploits of Bhagwan Ram, which takes place every fall during the Dusshera festival, is a mix of King Lear (exile), Macbeth (jealousy), The Merchant of Venice (swayamvar) and Henry VI (war).
Tonight, on entering the green room of Luv Kush Ramlila, taking place in the highly guarded August 15 Ground that faces the Mughal-era Red Fort, The Delhi Walla find actors in different stages of make-up. Queen Kaikeyi is getting her eyes lined with kohl. Her wicked maid Manthara – the actor Sanjay Sharma dressed in a saree and showing his hairy midriff – is having chai. Maharishi Vashisht is getting a snow-white beard pasted on his clean-shaven chin. The action is about to begin. Bhagwan Ram, played by MBA student Bhaskar Joshi, is showing no stage fright. “Nowadays, brothers fight each other for family wealth and young people ignore their old parents,” says Mr Joshi. “If they come to see Ramlila, they will discover the deep love between brothers and the unfailing obedience that children show to their parents.”
Ramlila is based on Ramayan, a fascinatingly complicated epic that has various versions in various languages. Its sub-plots have multi-layered ironies to invigorate the intellectual curiosities of pure atheists. In its grey areas, good is not always good and evil is not always evil. To Hindus, Ramayan is as beloved as Ram himself. The sweeping story has a simple core: On the eve of being anointed Ayodhya’s king, Prince Ram is unjustifiably exiled to 14 years in the forest. There, Lanka’s demon king Ravan kidnaps his wife, Sita. Ram invades Lanka, kills Ravan, rescues Sita, returns to Ayodhya and becomes the king.
“All our epics have relevance in today’s modern age,” says Vivek Gautam, who is portraying Ravan as well as Dashrath, Ram’s father. ‘If you take in even a little of the values that are there in the Ramayan, your life may change for good.” Mr Gautam then leaves the green room, climbs the stage, transforms into Dashrath and delivers a thundering dialogue. Actually, he is lip-syncing to the voice of professionals, who are speaking the characters’ lines from an invisible enclosure adjacent to the stage. This is just the third night and we are in the early stage of the story. Ram is still to be exiled. The chaat stalls in the venue will open on the final day. Though there are not many people in the crowd (the VIP lounge is almost empty), I feel that if Shakespeare were to be here, he would have felt at home.
Rishipal Singh as Maharishi Vashisht
Ajay Guruini as Ayodhya’s citizen
Sandeep Sharma as Ayodhya’s citizen
Sony Singh as Ayodhya’s citizen
Mausam Chowdhury as Sumant, the courtier
Luv as Ayodhya’s citizen
Ishu Arora as court noble
Vivek Gautam as King Dashrath
Sanjay Arya (left) and Mukul Gosh as court guards
Meenu Joshi as Queen Kaikeyi
Asha Sharma as court noble
Sanjay Sharma as Manthara
Bhaskar Joshi as Bhagwan Ram
Guarded by God and guards
The dialogue wallas
Bhagwan Ram with Shera, the Delhi Commonwealth Games mascot
Bhagwan Ram, the hero