Miracle Plays of Mathura, Part 9

BY: SUN STAFF -29.1 2021

Ram Doing Battle with Ravana

The Miracle Plays of Mathura.


The Ramlila

Ramlila is one of the most beloved transcendental dramas in all of India. As described by author Norvin Hein in his book, Miracle Plays of Mathura, the theatrical performances of Ramlila in Mathura and Vrindavan are the pinnacle of this transcendental art form.

Ramlila means, literally, 'Rama's sport', and performances that go by this name are based upon the Ramayana of Tulsidas. They cover the main incidents narrated in the Ramcaritmanas in a series of performances lasting many days, and they employ a rare stage technique that combines recitation of the sacred text with simultaneous acting and dialogue.

The name 'Ramlila' is sometimes applied to such plays even when they are produced at casual times by traveling companies of professional actors. Two such professional Ramlila troupes were at work in Vrindaban in the late 1940's, when the actors of Pandit Dip Cand held forth nightly on a platform erected in the fruit bazaar while another party was offering plays of the same sort in the nearby grain market. Groups of actors come from all over India to put on a month-long series of Ramayana dramas. The season of Rama's birthday in March (Caitra dukla 9th) is a time of year when all troupes capable of performing on Ramayana themes are likely to be at work. While these professional performances are sometimes called Ramlila, they are not the Ramlila, and it is not these which are discussed in the segments to follow.

The great Ramlila of North India is a distinct social institution, an annual feature of the dasahra holidays which begin in the latter part of September. Unlike the other traditional forms of drama found in Mathura District, the dasahra Ramlila is produced both by and for local people. It is organized, financed and staged in each town under the supervision of a committee selected for this duty in a roughly democratic manner by the local Hindu community. This is the Ramlila which touches the experience of the average person who grows up in North India. It is this autumnal series of Ramayana dramas which is described here as being one of the Miracles Plays of Mathura.

What follows is an account based largely on personal observation of many bona fide Ramalila performances in Mathura and Vrindaban in the late 1940's. Deferring the question of how communities organize to produce these plays, we shall deal first with the actors and then with the unique stage methods.

The actors are recruited from the community in which they perform. The minor parts in the plays are open to all boys and men who belong to one of the four castes and whose age is regarded as proper for a particular role. Opportunities to act in the Ramlila tend to be sought after particularly by certain families, who provide a disproportionate number of the community's performers. The actors who take the roles of Rama, his wife, and his brothers, however, must be of brahman caste because when they appear in costume and crown as the very embodiments (svarups) of the divinities, even brahmans will bow down to them and worship them.

A brahman boy may begin acting at about the age of ten, when he may take the role of one of King Dasaratha's children - Rama, Bharata, Lakshmana or Satrughna - in the childhood scenes of the early books of the Ramayana. On attaining the age of eleven or twelve, he may be selected for the role of Sita. At thirteen or fourteen, if talented and fortunate, the can be entrusted with the part of the grown-up Rama. He can hold this position for three or four years at the most. When hair appears on his upper lip, an inexorable law of the Vaishnava stage demands that his career as a svarup come to an end and a younger actor must be found to take his place.

Ramlila actors are essentially amateurs even though they receive small cash payments and other favors. Out of the considerable treasuries raised to support the plays, Rs. 555 was divided at the end of a recent season among the actors and workers in Mathura, and Rs. 161 among those in Vrindaban. In view of the large number of persons included in the distributions and their month-long labors, the small individual shares were tokens of appreciation rather than pay. Free food is provided for actors who remain on duty over meal hours. On the occasion of the enactment of Rama's coronation, special admirers of any actor may come forward and place personal gifts in his hands, but the actors' chief gains are pleasure and prestige. The ancient disrepute of the Indian actor is not attached in the least degree to the performers of the Ramlila. The boys who are selected for this work are highly respected and widely envied.

Sita, Ram and Lakshmana in Exile

The Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas is the subject matter of the Ramlila. Its function is to convey to the public the words of this Ramayana through musical recitation of the text and to make the meaning of that text clear and vivid through acting. In technique, the Ramlila fuses the techniques of cantillation with those of the drama. Recitation of the Ramayana has the priority and determines the structure of the performance. The central person in all the stage proceedings is the chanting pandit. From a prominent vantage point on or near the stage, he sings out to audience and actors the lines of the sacred text. One who wishes to follow the progress of the drama can do no better than to take a seat beside the pandit and follow his recitations down the pages of his large Ramayana from marked verse to marked verse. Sometimes he sings all the verses without omission for several pages together; then he may skip over many pages, pick out a verse or two here and there to serve as a bridge for the narrative, and pass on to a distant episode that has been selected for intensive dramatization.

Come communities consider it praiseworthy or even obligatory to read the entire Ramayana on the stage during the days of the Ramlila festival. It is noted that in Banares under the patronage of the Maharaja of that place, nearly the whole of the Ramayana is read through in the course of twenty or thirty days, and whatever incidents are capable of being acted, or displayed, are simultaneously exhibited'. In Banaras in years past, the reading of every word of Tulsidas was considered a strict duty. Today, however, the entire epic is covered only in certain extraordinary years.

The Ramcaritmanas contains numerous descriptive passages which simply could not be cast into lively stage action, and the majority of the local people no longer understood the archaic language well enough to enjoy it as more literary recitation. Therefore ingenious devices were employed to lighten the burden of the audience yet fulfill the letter of the law. The book was so divided for stage use that a night's performance ended just at the point in the text where such a wearisome passage began. The next day the pandits would arrive early at the place of assembly and sing the passage through dutifully to an almost empty theater, finishing just as the crowds began to arrive. If an undramatic passage of some length fell unavoidably in the middle of an evening's program, the singers proceeded through it in subdued voice while the audience was pleasantly diverted by a dance or farcical interlude.

The Ramlila players of the Mathura area feel free to make whatever selection they wish from the Ramayana. Some incidents of the epic are omitted entirely; others are presented in abstract, so to speak; and still others are produced in full with great pomp and emphasis. The body of selections is adjusted in quantity so that it can be acted out in the time allotted to the local dramatic festival. The chosen episodes are grouped into units that can be presented at one sitting. The resulting calendar of performances is published before the start of the season in the form of a large handbill or poster (lilapatra). A comparison of the handbills of a number of towns showed that each community's selection was different. Each town's way of editing the Ramayana for the stage tended to be traditional, the same selection of incidents being repeated year after year.

The statement that the Ramcaritmanas is the substance of the Ramlila requires several qualifications. First, there are or have been some exceptional communities which cling to the name and season of the Ramlila but base their acting upon new stage scripts which are related only loosely to the Ramayana of Tulsidas. In Hindi libraries one finds many works entitled Ramlila Natak or the like, which on examination prove to be efforts to cast the story of Rama into modern Hindi verse plays explicitly for the use of community Ramlila troupes. Though verses from the Ramcaritmanas predominate in these works, almost all the compilers admit using poetry from other sources as well. Such books seem to have been produced and used especially in the districts of Naini Tal and Almora, where they may have helped to ease a special language problem. The author has no information on their use in any other place. Whatever these more conventional play-scripts have been adopted, the systematic recitation of the Ramcaritmanas itself has necessarily ceased.

The Vrindaban actors in their dialogue make some use of poetic compositions on Ramayana themes written by a recent poet named Radhesyam. His modern Hindu verse is much more easily intelligible to present-day audiences than the now-difficult poetry of Tulsi. In keeping with the general Indian literary custom of resorting to poetic expression in emotional situations, the actors in intense scenes often abandon their usual prose dialogue for the verses of Radhesyam. His poetry has a limited use in Satna as well. In neither town does it replace the Ramcaritmanas as the text of basic recitation.

Finally, the bulky editions of the Ramcaritmanas used by the pandits contain a good deal of material which was not written by Tulsidas. Printed for pious rather than scholarly use, they incorporate a number of interpolated stories (kshepak) which one cannot find in critically edited editions. One such interpolation elaborates into an episode the incident of Sabari, the jungle woman who offered Rama her best hospitality, although it was only an offering of wild fruits. The others include the story of how Sulocana, the wife of Meghnad, became a sati, and the extended episode of Ahiravana's carrying off of Rama and Lakshmana into Patala, and the beloved passages in which hanuman proves by tearing open his chest that the name of Rama is written on his heart. These interpolations provide several of the most popular episodes of the Ramlila performances.

In tomorrow's segment, we will explore the variations in Ramalila pastime, as set down on a detailed day-by-day Mathura calendar, as they are enacted in both pantomime drama and explicit sastric recitation.