Each year, as evenings lengthen and nights fill with the sweet smell of the ‘saptaparni’ tree, grounds big and small across north India come alive with the sights and sounds of the Ramayana being staged for rapt audiences. This October is different.
The cheer is missing as most Ramlilas have been either cancelled, recorded for digital viewing or recast in the corona mould — the retelling of the epic knitting the age-old story of good vanquishing evil with the dos and don’ts of a pandemic.
So, Ram is given a corona test at birth, Shiva’s bow is sanitised in the scene of Sita’s swayamvar and Bharat is behind a mask when he meets Ram in the Bharat Milap sequence at the Vishnu Avatar Ramlila Committee’s staging of the mythological tale in north Delhi’s Shastri Park locality.
That is the one way to tell the story of Ram and Sita, the loyalty of Lakshman and Hanuman, and the epic battle between Ram and Ravan in the time of a pandemic.
“We left no chance that our Ramlila may get cancelled for not following any rules. With these changes in the story we are also creating awareness among the public,” Prempal Singh, chief of the Vishnu Avatar Committee, said.
The lights strobe in rhythm to the music adding to the atmosphere of dread and drama as always and the actors are dressed in character. But this is Ramlila in a new avatar with fewer artistes on stage and some even wearing PPE kits.
“In scenes where we had 20 artistes earlier only five or 10 are on stage now. Similarly, in the audience there are fewer chairs, placed at six feet distance from each other. At the entry we sanitise everyone and distribute masks to all the visitors,” Singh added.
The Shastri Park committee is among the few that quickly adapted to the times. With formal guidelines to organise Ramlila in the city announced only on October 11, just a week before the nine-day theatrical production begins, most organisers couldn’t arrange the required licences and permissions in time.
“We had made some small preparations beforehand, like booking a venue and erecting the tent, getting the coronavirus tests done on the crew. And after the guidelines were announced, we worked day and night to get all the permissions,” Singh added. The Sanskriti Kala Sangam, which has been providing actors, dancers and supporting crew to organisers for 15 years, got no invite from anywhere this year so its director Yash Chauhan decided to tell the story through digital media.
The Sangam has performed in places such as Ayodhya, Chitrakoot, Meerut and Rohtak over the years.
Chauhan, who finished shooting his depiction of the Ramayana on the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi a few days ago with a limited number of actors, is broadcasting the mythological drama on YouTube and Facebook for four days from Thursday till Dussehra on October 25.
He managed to shoot Ramlila in accordance with Home Ministry guidelines, but argued that the limitations of social distancing was an artistic dampener.
“How can we maintain social distance on stage? How can you show Bharat Milap without Ram and Bharat hugging each other,” Chauhan asked.
The episode in the Ramayana shows Bharat trying to persuade his elder brother Ram to return to Ayodhya from exile and take his rightful position as the new king.
Chauhan also rued the lack of a live audience.
“Yes, we will be getting comments and likes on our videos but that can’t be compared with the sound of applause from hundreds of people. Each applause increases our excitement on stage. That instant acknowledgement for our craft is missing,” Chauhan said.
The Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK) at Mandi House also managed to stage the ‘Sampoorna Ramlila’ for the 64th year by housing the crew at a hostel and testing them for COVID-19 infection every 15 days.
“We kept rehearsing for the last two months without thinking about the possibility that it may get cancelled. We were continuously being tested for the infection, maintained social distancing and stayed at a hostel instead of going home every day,” said Rajkumar Sharma, who plays the role of Ram at SBKK’s Ramayana.
Another grand scale Ramlila is being organised at the banks of Saryu river in the historic city of Ayodhya, believed by devotees to be the birthplace of Ram.
The star-studded ‘Ayodhya ki Ramlila’, for telecast on Doordarshan, YouTube and other social media platforms, sees Delhi BJP MP and actor Manoj Tiwari playing the role of Angad (Ram’s emissary), Gorakhpur BJP MP and actor Ravi Kishan playing Bharat, and Vindu Dara Singh enacting the role of Hanuman.
Many organisers blamed the Delhi government for not giving them enough time to prepare.
“It takes at least two months to prepare for a decent Ramlila. It feels as if the government didn’t even want us to stage one,” Arjun Kumar, secretary of the Luv Kush Ramlila Committee in Delhi, said.
The Luv Kush Ramlila Committee, which sees participation from 250 dancers who cme all the way from Mumbai, organises a lavish production at the Red Fort grounds, which is usually attended by the prime minister, president and ministers. Not this time though.
“We understand the seriousness of COVID, but if only they had given us two months to prepare. How can an organiser get so many permissions in just a few days?” Kumar asked.
“We waited for SOPs so we didn’t make any arrangements beforehand. Then we decided not to organise a Ramlila this year,” he added.
Many other committees decided to follow suit. No Ramlilas being staged also means that the traditional fairs, the food and festivities that were so much a part of the Dussehra season are missing.