Come war or disease, Ramleela performances have continued for over 200
years in India but Covid-19 has put a spanner in the works.
Ramnagar ki Ramleela is a seasoned play. It has been performed for the last 200 years and local people and sightseers from around the world gather in Benaras in India to see it.
It has hymns, stage performances and rituals that include parading elephants and chanting of the Ramacharitmanas. UNESCO recognized its value and made it a heritage show. Ramleela gatherings draw millions of people, including researchers, villagers, tourists and artistes from all over the world.
Ramnagar, a boat ride from the ghats of Varanasi, is a re-creation of the Ramayana and even boasts a lake called Ganga. Being there watching artistes perform is a lifetime experience. The first act of Ramleela was performed in 1830.
There are several fascinating aspects of the performances in Ramleela like daylight plays so that actors can perform with natural light and no spotlights. The artistes don’t use any sound technology like microphones, speakers, etc. but their own voices to enact various scenes. The audience sits on the sand and watches the artists perform. The endless rows of food items also attract the public; there is banarsi pan, puri bhaji, jalebis and other delicious desi foods. People enjoy the play while eating and, over the years, the tradition hasn’t changed.
At the time when the movement to become independent and defeat British rule was gathering momentum, Ramleela was considered as boosting Indian endeavours against the British.
The Maharaja of Benaras prefers artistes under 18 years on the basis of their clear vocals and acting skills. The roles of Ram, his brothers and Sita are selected from the Brahman families; auditions are conducted by the royal officials. The trainees live with experts, study the Ramayana and learn how to use their vocals and gestures for their roles.
Ramleela has great significance in India. The production travels from locality to locality to perform; the places visited have names like Ashok Vatika, Janakpur and Lankahe, which attracts the public. The Brahman boys are carried on the shoulders of Ramleela labourers so that their feet don’t touch the ground. Every evening, the public assembles for their “Darshan” and touch their feet. After Ramleela, they’re returned to their families and it’s an honour for them.
Ramleela was scowled at by the British as it encourages large get-togethers. Moreover, at the time when the movement to become independent and defeat British rule was gathering momentum, Ramleela was considered as boosting Indian endeavours against the British. In the war between Lord Rama and Ravan, when the ten-headed Ravan was burned in front of the public, the people hooted and got the message that good always defeats evil. However, the Ramleela play never stopped once, not even in 1962 during the war with China. During nights, pilots saw lights in Benaras which turned out to be the lanterns used for the performances. When the royal family heard the complaints, they covered the place with a canopy.
It’s a great event for history lovers and artistes to visit Benaras at the time of Dussehra. A trip to Benaras can be a great experience from a traveller’s perspective. Many people have considered Benaras as older than history, including Mark Twain. The rituals and acts performed there are known worldwide.
Due to COVID-19, the performances have stopped and only recitation remains of Ramacharitmanas in a holy temple in Jankpur, which is the home of Ramlila’s Sita. The present Kashi Naresh, Maharaj Anant Narayan Singh also tested positive for COVID’19 in September and was taken to a hospital in Gurgaon. That is why in 2019 Ramleela was performed online and only 200 people could watch it live.