Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra’s ‘Ramleela’ has now become ‘Shri Ram’, and is the oldest running dance drama, depicting episodes from the Ramayana, in Delhi. In its 66th year, the daily show remains almost the same. At a time when movie viewership has fallen drastically, ‘Shri Ram’ still plays to packed houses.
Originally performed at Feroz Shah Kotla grounds, it is now staged at the Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra grounds. In the 1950s, the live orchestra, conducted by Barun Dasgupta, (disciple of Pt. Ravi Shankar), provided the background score. About three decades ago, the original script was modified to a more recognisable ‘khari boli’, and the sound track was then recorded. Using around 120 musicians, with more than 400 pieces woven together, the music was composed and arranged by the late vocalist Shanti Sharma, and award-winning sarodist Pt. Biswajit Roy Chowdhury. There is a discernable influence of Hindustani music since both belonged to the genre. Pt. Biswajit shared that when any re-recording takes place because of a scene change acoustic instruments are still preferred to electronic ones. Recently, some choupais from Valmiki Ramayana were re-introduced.
The original lighting was designed by the celebrated Tapas Sen, which was later modernised by his student, Gautam Bhattacharya. The costumes are changed frequently. This year, the people of Ayodhya in the play were seen in multi-coloured dresses embellished with Gujarati mirror work, while Ravan and his brother Vibhishan were attired in Kathakali costumes. The masks they sported matched the characters well. Pappu, as he is affectionately known, played Ravana with elan; his expressions and body language adding to the impact.
One of the finest scenes was the slaying of Jatayu, played by dancer Swapan Mazumdar. Hanuman’s monkey army, a favourite of children, were made to jump off the stage. The spectacular finale showed Ayodhya lit with diyas that were carried by dancers; one could imagine the practice that must have gone into making this scene near-perfect. The movements showed the influences of various classical, folk and martial dance forms such as Chhau, Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Kalaripayattu. There are two sets of cast since running the show for a month is a huge task. The sets were well-designed, especially Ravana’s court. A gigantic visual display unit, a recent addition, explained each scene in English to the uninitiated.
Shobha Deepak Singh, director, Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, has been consistently upgrading the ‘Ramleela’ experience while keeping its old-world charm intact, including the snacks on offer at the show. The choicest chaat, jalebis, alu tikkis and chai are sourced from traditional outlets. The 78-year-old Shobha, who has been associated with the production since its inception, is still as passionate about it. She makes it a point to be at the show every evening taking care of the details.
Ask her what keeps the show going and she says, “the timeless appeal of the epic.”
Daily shows of ‘Shri Ram’ will be held in Delhi till October 22 after which it will travel to other cities.
The Delhi-based writer specialises in classical arts.