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Colours of Dasara

Enduring charm of Ramlila

The enactment of the epic continues to draw audience

September 28, 2017 02:35 pm | Updated 05:07 pm IST

Narendra Sharma, Rekha Shankar and Uma Sharma in Delhi’s Bharatiya Kala Kendra production.

Narendra Sharma, Rekha Shankar and Uma Sharma in Delhi’s Bharatiya Kala Kendra production.

Ah! Ram finally gets incensed enough to shoot Ravana with an arrow precisely where Vibhishana tells him to — right in his naabhi — for that's where lies Amrita — celestial nectar — which Brahma gifted Ravana as immunity from all races, devtas and danavs. With that pot of nectar broken, Ravana dies. Drama, action, even fireworks!

As a child, it was an annual treat to watch the Ramayana being enacted daily through this month. Going to Ramlilas mounted by neighbourhood mandalis is still part of people’s cultural calendar.

The Ramlila engages many amateur and established actors, dancers, set makers, musicians and organisers. It’s that time of the year when community art takes over.

Among the more classy versions, the Ramlila by Delhi’s (Shriram) Bharatiya Kala Kendra was the most eagerly-awaited outing during the 1960s and Seventies.

Imagine, a teacher from Kerala, guru Gopinath, initially choreographed the most popular Ramlila of North India, performed even today.

Seventy unbroken years and the credit goes to the Shriram family, especially Sumitra Charatram, who founded it in 1947, now under charge of her daughter Shobha, advised by no less a person than the former secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Jayant Kastuar. Narendra Sharma and Shekharan Panikar enhanced the production.

Star artistes such as Kathak exponent Uma Sharma, Odissi senior Aloka Panikar and a royal-looking Raghavan Nair played stellar roles.

Guru Gopinath used admixture of many dance forms: Kathakali for Ravana to show drama; Kathak footwork for battle scenes and soft, stylised Bharatanatyam for group scenes in Panchavati or court. This year, the 61st edition of Ramlila is being staged.

Shadow Ramayana

Uday Shankar of Bengal created Shadow Ramayana, where all action took place behind screen and audiences saw only shadows in front. To get that scale and size was nothing short of genius.

Kalakshetra made productions based on one sargam from the epic, say Ramapattabhishekam or Sabhari Moksham and till date many classical dancers base their work on episodes from the Ramayana.

Puppet Ramayana by Gwalior-based (then Bhopal) Little Ballet Troupe, created 50-plus years ago of human puppets, did yet another memorable production on the theme. Each movement was angular, as if puppets were enacting it. Prabhat Ganguli and Gul Bardhan were lead artistes. That production was a classic also since Shanti Bardhan was its founding creative head. He was also at Almora Studio of, and with, Uday Shankar.

One of the best seen in the mid-Seventies in North India, which also travelled all over the country then, was the visiting Russian Ramayana.

Each Soviet actor was chosen for his/her attributes: Ram looked royal and benign; Sita dainty and tender and Lakshmana truly angry. The whole production was in Russian. We understood only one word: ‘Oh! my nose!’ when Surpanakha cried hoarse in English, after Lakshmana slashed her nose. The audience clapped with glee and its enduring charm and professionalism still linger in our memory. Once, in the audience quietly seated was the late Primi Minister Indira Gandhi with her grand kids.

Tulsidas’s Ramayan is popular for its easy language accessibility but Valmiki’s is no less.

Sanskrit scholar K.S. Srinivasan mounted one with ace choreographer K. Shekharan in the mid-1980s and this travelled to many countries and cultures.

And then the colour TV came home to make all that history. Big productions on stage are gone and today only snippets exist.

What makes the Ramayana and tales from the other epic Mahabharata) so enduring ? Is it the inbuilt drama, the huge cast, or is it somethingelse?

It’s the basic connection with human beings. These stories and lessons are still valid in politics, family and society. These epics live in our hearts and in our arts.

The writer, a critic and historian, is the4 author of several books and edits attenDance, a yearbook

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