Ramlila at Prithvi Theatre: Rambunctious and Unforgettable
Far from the creaky floorboards and blazing arc lamps of the makeshift prosceniums of Faridabad, the Shri Shraddha Ramlila Committee quite possibly found their recent outing to the bourgeois settings of Prithvi Theatre much more onerous than they may have bargained for. The final Sunday at the venue’s annual theatre festival was dedicated to the group’s much-vaunted Ramlila, now in its tenth year of production. Its selling point is a script that features Urdu as its linguistic mainstay alongside Hindi and a smattering of Punjabi. This is a tradition that goes back to pre-Partition India, although its adherents had slowly dissipated over the years. This version’s organizers trace their provenance to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, and as refugees to India, their forefathers brought with them manuscripts inscribed in Urdu. The text is drawn from the versions of the Ramayana by Jaswant Singh Verma Tohanvi and Radheshyam Kathavachak, although the latter’s iteration in vernacular Hindustani or khariboli underwent an insidious Sanskritisation over the decades since it was first published in 1939. Of course, the working script is now an embellished rendering that accounts for the improvisations, interpretations, and omissions that live performance so felicitously engenders.
While the mix of tongues it employs is a novelty in itself, it’s also one of the rare Ramlilas from Faridabad that employs women, rather than cross-dressing men, for all principal female parts. The programme accounted for a running time of more than six hours — trifurcated into three performing slots to better reflect a festival-style itinerary. Of course, back in its original habitat at the Community Centre Park at Sector 15, Faridabad, the epic is performed over ten whole days, with the concluding performance marking the festivities of Dussehra when Raavan was finally vanquished by Rama. The shows at Prithvi garnered a decent enough turnout, shored up by a slew of last-minute handouts to lucky visitors to the venue’s bustling cafe, which attracts quite a humongous clientele of its own, usually independent of any cultural affiliations but now commandeered to stand in as impromptu enthusiasts and they certainly played their part. The troupe came with their costumes and props, but the sets — mostly thrones and platforms — were locally sourced, and the intrepid festival volunteers were the stagehands in the wings, teeming in and out like worker bees on overdrive during the quick transitions warranted by the production.
When Things Go Wrong…
It must be said that very quickly the Ramlila descended into a colossal comedy of errors to rival the famous Mahabharata sequence from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Apart from things that went ‘thump’ in the dark, there were wardrobe malfunctions galore — garters embarrassingly failing on dhotis, armbands and crowns falling off with impunity. The hapless master of ceremonies, with her signature intonation, ‘Jai Shri Ram’, had to frequently call for her errant spotlight. Arrows were shot off in all directions, but their intended targets still invariably fell dead, and then the players acting dead had to be prodded in the bones to get them to shamble off backstage during transitions.
Most glaringly, the ear-pieces that many actors sported, to prompt them on their lines, were switched on at full volume for quite some time, which caused each line of dialogue to be heard twice — the actors’ intonations preceded by the teeny voice in their heads. As was evident during the opening scene of the death of Shravan Kumar — the brand of acting was straight-facedly melodramatic without an ounce of finesse or rigour — which added to the hilarity for an audience that saw the staging as an unending spoof, so bad that it was good, and laughed through even the most melancholic of episodes like Dasharath’s demise or Bharat’s abdication. It didn’t help that the projected backdrops of palace scenes and nature scenes were like garish wallpapers more suited to shoddy hotel foyers.
Playing To The Gallery
However, when sections in the audience cottoned on to the actors’ dogged perseverance given the circumstances, the laughter that initially lampooned their performances turned into an encouraging swell of applause and cheeriness that allowed the better-realized set-pieces to hit the mark. While Ritesh Kumar as Rama was adequately munificent and Yogandha Vashishtha as Sita was a songbird with a hand on the lower registers, it was Shravan Chawla as Raavan and director Anil Chawla as Laxman who were given the choicest couplets and their performances combined bombast with a flair for broad histrionics. It must be said that the poetic banter between the actors in Urdu, played magnificently to the gallery. The aesthetics of verbalization wasn’t lost on anyone thereby spectacularly justifying the Ramlila’s raison d’être.
Director Chawla, especially, was the play’s resident proprietor, whispering instructions to dithering actors, supervising the gathering of props, and generally getting the audience on board what was turning into a rambunctious affair, without giving up on the misadventures that had won over the onlookers in the first place. Late in the second part, Kailash Chawla’s easy-going Hanuman literally had the audience eating out of his hands as he flung bananas and apples, stolen from Lanka’s larders, at them.
Finale To Remember
Of course, there were believers aplenty for whom the Ramlila is sacrosanct, or even wholesomely endearing, in whichever manner it is encountered. After all, the standards of urban theatre perhaps need not be applied to every cultural artifact, not least a form that has survived for centuries. Many other were converted as the evening wore on. Thus, despite its monumental failings, the Ramlila, and its willing spectators, for what is theatre without an audience, contributed to creating an electric and convivial atmosphere quite befitting of a festival finale.
This post originally appeared on The Hindu on November 17, 2017 and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.