Backstage with the Gods

Ram Leela - 5
[Ravanna sans the most important face]

At every moment in our lives, perhaps, we are to some extent actors, or performers, as well as spectators. When performers and spectators "connect" it creates a very special quality of theater that both transports and transforms all those involved. In India we cherish this strong link between reality and fantasy first through theatre and now through film. All this age old mimicry of life somehow affects us and in return this mimicry is in itself a self-definition of the society we live in. This is the anthropology of theatre. I think Ram Lila or the enactment of Ramayana every Dassera stands as an example of this link between society and theatre. "Lila" or "Leela" roughly translated means "wonders by his grace" so RamLila should mean the creations/magic/wonders that Ram created with his abilities or the creative interpretation of the same by the actors of the Ram Lila itself. In other words the Ram Lila is a self-critique of Ram's life mirrored by the life of the actors that express it. The Ram Lila affects an entire population and has a dramatic and enduring effect on the lives of the poorest and the richest.

Since I was already fascinated by the socio-cultural importance of the tradition of Ram Lila I decided to visit Ram Lila Sabha at Cross Maidan. I spent the greater part of yesterday with the theatre artists of this Ramlila to get an idea of the training and production they go through, so that people like me outside theater come to a much deeper knowledge of the physical, emotional and intellectual demands made on such actors playing characters respected by the general public as gods no less.

[The stage is yet to unfold]

Ram Leela 17
[Hanuman's many sidekicks]

There's music in every corner of the back tent in Cross Maidan. While a stray beat of the tabla distracts me, I can hear the collective sounds of "ghungroos" in the vicinity as the small group rehearses to the sounds of the Hanuman Chalisa. A group of men in their banyans sit cross legged in the foreground applying a rich array of face paints, while costumes, masks and a trunk full of props litter the tubelight lit hall of the tent. Now the soft murmurs of actors engaged in serious discussion can be heard. Sitting in the corner watching them prepare is in itself filled with degrees of drama. The picture of chaos is evident but then again it is a relaxed chaos slowly building up tempo to its crescendo when the curtains rise to hundred or so spectators to be dazzled by the story they know so well but still wish to see in technicolor reality for the umpteen time. Thirty minutes to "curtain rise" and Hanuman is still to attach his eyebrows and his tail has gone missing since the last performance; Ram can't find his right jhumka, Sita is straightening her [his actually as all Ramlila artists are men] blouse; Laxman is fiddling with Ram's bow and Ravana still not ready can be seen alternating between sips of a cup of chai and a beedi he borrowed from Sita. In other words it was all a messed up surreal dream exactly like the one I had about Jesus riding a Harley.

Many Stages of Hanuman

Stage 1
Ram Leela - 10

Stage 2
Ram Leela - 11

State 3

Ram Leela -3

Stage 4

Ram Leela - 1
[& that is only the face]

While shooting Ram Lila artists I was faced with several dilemma or let me rephrase there were several Laxman rekhas I had to cross and be done with during the shoot besides the slowly deteriorating light in early evening. First, you can not shoot Ram or Laxman or Sita in the same frame as Ravana as its ungodly, second if Hanuman is be shot with Ram or Laxman he has be on his knees and the list goes on. What was more disappointing was the fact that they wouldn't let me a take a picture of myself in the Ravana mask. That would possibly have been the best ever blogger profile pic but alas it wasn't to be. It is all about getting into the character I guess.

Ram Leela - 12
[20 minutes to curtain rise]

Ram Leela - 2
[Ram himself]

Ram Leela - 7
[Brother in Arms, Ram and Laxman are messing around with me]

All in all it was one of those rich Indian experiences that you only find by looking. It made me understand the essence of Ramleela and hence theatre and film. They implicitly ask us to re-evaluate our performances in our daily life, and discover for better or worse the social reality it reveals.

Youc can see rest of the photographs in series here - all images can be seen large clicking

[with inputs by Lavanya on flickr]

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Nina Paley said...

Thanks for posting that! I recently learned that Ramayana stagings in Thailand and Indonesia often use female actresses to portray Rama and Laxman ("the beautiful ones"), and your post confirms many Indian stagings use exclusively male actors, including for Sita. What a big world.

Sunil Deepak said...

Wonderful pictures and nice narrative. Loved this glimpse into those those other realities that exist but we don't know about!

Anonymous said...

it's a real pity that they didn't let you shoot freely.. i'm sure you would have been able to come away with some funny stuff. i would have loved to see ravana and sita sharing a beedi!!

i like the feel and colors of the first shot..

the composition in the last one - with the bow cutting across the frame, the clothes hanging in the bg, the texture of the roof etc - is money.

Unknown said...

Nina - I'm sure they are a million differrent interpretation of Ramayana and where I'm concerned they're all true. Even in India such representations vary regionally. RamLila is tradition which can be traced from North India and is very prevalent in the cities and villages of Uttar Pradhesh especially Varanasi and Ramnagar. I would love to investigate the Thai and Balinese representations of the Ramayana. My interest like your would be on the line of Visual Anthropology. I have also heard that Khmer Classical Dance also incorporateds stories from the Ramayana and the Jataka in to dance.

Sunil - Those other realities exist but one needs to look for them. I found it simple enough. I'm sure a similar experience greats you at the corner of your street just go forth and explore.

Nishad - It is a petty they let me shoot freely - the theatre artists were pretty open to the camera but their supervisor grand swami dude wasn't. At first he denied me out right from shooting anything but was nice enough to let me watch - after while he opened up to me let me shoot for while.

I like the first shot too.

Anonymous said...

The pictures themselves tell a story. Great job.

Mridula said...

Lovely post.

Vinod Rajagopal said...

chanced here.. and am i glad...!

What camera do u use Akshay?

Anonymous said...

Great post. As usual, I might add. A beautiful read with pictures that engage.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

This is great. I just finished shooting the Astamatrika dances here in Kathmandu, and trying to shoot the NavaDurga dancers...there are definite restrictions on these things. One tries to work with the traditional restraints, but artistically it's limiting.

Cynical Consultant said...

Great stuff.. thanks.
I had no idea that you cannot shoot ravan and ram in the same frame. Truly interesting & great images.