In its 60th year, Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra's dance drama is as iconic as Delhi itself
As kids, my cousins and I would count the days to Dussehra -- not just because of the festivities to follow but because of that much-awaited trip to the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra to watch the Ramlila. Bundled up into cars, we would spend the long ride enacting bits from the previous year's production. As the iconic production turns 60 next year, it doesn't come as a surprise that nearly everyone who has watched it over decades has an indelible memory attached with it.
For Odissi dancer Madhavi Mudgal, for instance, it is the songs that still linger in the mind. "As kids, we used to watch it regularly. I have very vivid memories of songs such as Honge Raja Ram Awadh Ke, and Maang Maang, which was sung by Manthara," she says.
"You could say that I was born into it," laughs Bharat Sharma, director, Bhoomika Creative Dance Centre. His father, Narendra Sharma, choreographed the very first production of the Ramlila in 1957. "My father played Ravan and my mother played Sita."
The first edition was a collaboration between his father's National Ballet Centre and Sumitra Charat Ram, founder of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. The first rehearsal was held at the Modern School lawns and the production was staged at Ferozshah Kotla. "I was a few months old at the time. My mother used to leave me near the music bay and go on stage. Apparently, I used to go off to sleep when the drums played the loudest," he says. The venue shifted from Kotla to the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra's lawns after nearly a decade of the show's inception.
"The Ramlila grew in front of my very eyes. So many things came together to make the production iconic -- especially the lighting and the costumes," says Kathak stalwart Birju Maharaj. "What hasn't changed over the years is people's enthusiasm about Ramlila," he says.
"I must be the only person who has seen every single show of the Ramlila since it started," says Shobha Deepak Singh, who was 14 when her mother first staged the production. Today she is the director of Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra and also production director of the show. Under Singh, the Ramlila changed form to grow into the contemporary dance ballet that it is today. In a bid to make it more accessible to the public, she changed the narration from Awadhi to Hindi 14 years ago. She also innovated with the traditional dance idiom to make it more modern.
The costumes have also evolved over the years to suit the needs of the dancers. Till the 1970s-80s, when the return of Ram and Lakshman from vanvas was staged, the two actors had to change on stage as there was no time to go backstage. Today, the costume changes are seamless. "The dancers used to wear metallic jewellery. So when they would change, their blouses would tear thanks to the metallic bangles. Now with velcro jewellery, it has become much easier for them," she says.
One of the key changes has been to the narrative itself. Lakshman and Sita are no longer mere followers of Ram. They have voices of their own. "In asking for the deer, you also see Sita being more assertive about her desires. When Ravan kidnaps her, her loud scream is that of every single woman who has had to go through this," says Singh. Lakshman too is no longer just a passive spectator. "In the current production, one can see him reacting to Ram's decisions," she says.
I ask Singh if the production ever faced challenges due to the changing political graph of the country, especially during Emergency days. "Never. There has never been a time when this production was not staged. It has stood all tests of time," she says.
The 59th edition of Ramlila will be held at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra's lawns, New Delhi, till November 9, 2015.