Ramleela is a story the world doesn’t tire of. What is more, tireless men and women have been performing these devoted duties for decades. Take Dhan Raj Kathuria, who came from NWFP to Delhi at Partition and has been an active member of the Delhi Arts Club (founded in 1949 and later renamed Rajendra Nagar Arts Club) since 1953.

Let there be celluloid, television, Internet games. But Ram, Sita, Hanuman and Ravan will remain superstars. Especially in Ramleela season, as the story of the king of Ayodhya plays out every night till Dussehra in pandals across North India.

The characters remain unchanged, the dialogues run on expected lines, but the actors belong to today. Doctors, teachers, corporate professionals — they are all ready to man the harmonium or don the greasepaint. Students dodge studies, and a West Delhi grandma dodges her family to take the stage as Shabari, sidestepping their objections to her acting by coming under cover of darkness!

Tireless men and women have been performing these devoted duties for decades. Take Dhan Raj Kathuria, who came from NWFP to Delhi at Partition and has been an active member of the Delhi Arts Club (founded in 1949 and later renamed Rajendra Nagar Arts Club) since 1953.

“Earlier the style was of Parsi theatre, with lots of sher-o-shayari and theatrical acting. You had to speak very loudly. Then came mikes, and we changed our style to suit the new technology,” recalls Kathuria, a retired bureaucrat. “The acting became more realistic.” Today the group uses cordless mikes and multimedia effects. Kathuria once played Dasharath among other roles, and now his son plays part. Satish Wadhwa, retired from the Defence Services, who played Ram for years, is director and music composer of the production. Till a couple of years ago, Wadhwa would sing live, but with advancing age it was decided to record the soundtrack. Still, Wadhwa sits at the sound panel and adds live touches when necessary.

Live contribution

Three musicians, on the violin, tabla and a keyboard, also contribute live, especially between scenes. Wadhwa has always made it a point to avoid film tunes.

Speaking of films, it was in this Ramleela that Shah Rukh Khan took his baby steps in acting, as a member of Sugreeva’s monkey army. Such bit roles are how all the children start off, says Sumita, Kathuria’s daughter-in-law, whose young son has already debuted as baby Ram.

If this Ramleela epitomises sustained community participation over six decades, others, like the Sulamal Ramleela Committee in Ghaziabad, are even older. Then there is the 40-year-old Shri Dharmik Ramleela Samiti in Ghaziabad’s Kavi Nagar area, which invites mandalis from Mathura. The Samiti is hard to please. “We ask them to change the actors if we feel they aren’t suitable, like if Ram doesn’t have an innocent face or if Ravan looks too much a hero,” says Deepak Agrawal, part of the Samiti for 20 years.

Images are graven in the heart. Believe no more the city has no heart! As stage Kewats wash Ram’s feet and swallow the water, as costumes and props are invested with a temple aura, perhaps Lord Ram is looking down and smiling. We can’t be sure. But the Delhi Metro train passing overhead sounds like his conch.