Back in the mid-1970s, every time a young man playing Jatayu stepped on the stage, someone would be ready with cotton and iodine. So passionately would this man enact the mythological bird which tried to rescue Sita from Ravan that he would give it his all. When the king of Lanka would cut off his wings, the dying Jatayu would fall to the ground with such force that his knees would bleed. After the performance someone would rush to tend to his wounds.
The audience loved this Jatayu. But his costume didn’t do justice to his powerful, and very physical, performance. “He would be fully covered, down to the baggy churidar,” recalls Shobha Deepak Singh, production director of the month-long Ramlila which is being performed for the 56th year at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi. So she designed a new, minimalistic costume, with wings and headgear, which made his powerful movements visible.
This was just one of the many changes that Singh has made to the annual dance drama which was staged for the first time in 1957. Singh was 14 years old then. “The production work for the Ramlila would happen in the basement of our house” — 18 Curzon Road which is today the multi-storied Hindustan Times building near Connaught Place. The daughter of Lala Charat Ram, the youngest son of Lala Shri Ram who founded the DCM empire, she grew up in an environment imbued with culture. The Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, founded 60 years ago by her mother (Sumitra Charat Ram), Shri Ram Centre, Lady Shri Ram College and Shri Ram College of Commerce were all founded by her family. Every day after returning from school, she would dash to the basement to see the Ramlila preparations — costumes, beards and headdresses being made, and masks for monkeys and demons being painted.
The Ramlila performed back then, and based on Valmiki’s and Tulsidas’s versions, was simple and straightforward. “The narration was in Awadhi which people understood easily then and the ballet was performed to live music,” says Singh who turns 69 on Sunday and, as the Kendra’s director, is as hands on as she was when she joined it 44 years ago. Some 12 years ago, she changed the language to Hindi which is more accessible to people today. The other big change is its renaming as Shri Ram. Also, unlike the Ramlila of the past, it is now a contemporary ballet using a mix of Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Chhau and, this time, a little Garba, performed to recorded dialogues and music based on classical and folk idioms.
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The Ramlila then, says Singh, portrayed all characters as black and white, good or evil. Singh, who also participated — “as a monkey” — in those early days, says, “We really looked at the characters as gods and goddesses or demons and demonesses”. But, the more she read the Ramayan, including versions by contemporary writers, the more she started to think about the shades of greys that their Ramlila didn’t touch upon. After a course in theatre direction under Ebrahim Alkazi, she began to question more and worked on bringing out the subtext of the epic.
“For example, why did Ram and Sita have to believe in the golden deer after being happily married for 13 years?” she asks. Was this temptation a result of being married for years? She uses two deer, and not one, to show the mirage of the golden deer.
Sita’s character, says Singh, has been the most inconsistent, unlike Ram’s which has remained the same over the decades. In asking for the deer, while you get a glimpse of temptation, you also see Sita being more assertive about her desires. “Else,” says Singh, “she would have just remained a passive character by her husband’s side.” Another point of conflict came when Singh wanted to introduce two lines around Sita’s agni pariksha (trial by fire). “I wanted to say, ‘It’s an ordeal which every woman has to undergo and no man ever has to face’,” she says. “But my mother wouldn’t hear of it.” Singh finally did introduce the lines, but only after her mother’s death two years ago.
There’s something else that she would want to bring in sometime. “Valmiki’s Ramayan has it that Dasharath wanted everybody to be informed about Ram’s coronation except Kaikeyi’s father,” says Singh. “So,” she adds, “you musn’t see things skin deep. There are layers within layers. The idea is to unravel them without deviating from the mythology.”
Another character who attracts huge audience applause is Ravan. One theory, says Singh, is that Ravan was present at Sita’s swayamvar. “We were in the car returning after the first show of the first Ramlila and I remember how angry my grandfather was that Ravan had been shown at Sita’s swayamvar,” says Singh. The Ramlila now does not show Ravan at the swayamvar but it does have a line where Ravan realises that Ram is a god. “And he knows that the only way he can attain moksha (salvation) is if he is killed by Ram.”
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For about six years now, Rakesh Saibabu, 27, has been playing Ram in the dance drama. Given a chance, he says he’d like to play Jatayu and Ravan — two characters who get a lot of space and range in Shri Ram.
Watching the production is a mesmerising experience. Not once in the two-and-a-half hours does the performance slip. The transition between scenes — from Dasharath’s palace to the jungle or to Janak’s palace or to Lanka — is effortless. One form of music flows into another. One form of dance slips into another. Not a second is wasted between costume changes. Singh has ensured that. She has designed Velcro jewellery which can be removed or put on in seconds. “The earlier metal jewellery cost a bomb to polish, took forever to wear and ripped the costumes,” says Singh. Fresh flowers — “they cost Rs 200 a day at a time when gold was Rs 250 a tola!” — have made way for plastic ones designed by Singh and made by artisans in old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk area. The costumes, designed by Singh too, are inspired by miniature paintings or sculptures.
Over the decades, the Kendra’s Ramlila has only grown bigger. On its guest list have been presidents and prime ministers like Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee “who used to come every year till he could”. This year the Ramlila was performed for the first time at Rashtrapati Bhavan before President Pranab Mukherjee.
Singh says, “You can make your work as small as you want to or as big as you desire.” She wants to make it “really big”.
(“Shri Ram” is on till November 11 at 6.30 pm at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Delhi)