The Real Demon

Watching Ramlilas in Delhi you sense how living traditions can be turned into fossils

Actors get ready for a Ramlila performance in Old Delhi. {{name}}
01 November, 2011

THE WEEK BEFORE DUSSEHRA, I saw several performances of the Ramayana story. I went to Old Delhi, the site of three famed Ramlilas and one Ramayana-themed procession called Sawaari, to the sarkari heart of the capital, where I watched the dance drama Shri Ram, and finally to Mehrauli, where a resident friend said there was a local Ramlila.

I watched the Sawaari outside Chawri Bazaar Metro station: brass bands followed by a series of tableaux, actors dressed as Rama, Lakshmana, Ravana, Sita and Hanuman, looking more jittery than benevolent. Friends who grew up with the Sawaari announced it was no patch on what was. By Delhi standards, the watchers were few, the lack of excitement palpable. “Almost no one lives in sheher anymore,” said one friend, using the term for Old Delhi that means simply ‘city’, marking its originary claim to urbanity within the vast, disparate terrain that constitutes the National Capital Region. “And who has the time to come from elsewhere?”

The Sawaari did seem like a local tradition in decline, a ritual that once brought together an urban community and was now only perfunctory. In contrast, the Ramlilas of Parade Ground and Ramlila Maidan, with their gigantic sets and ear shattering sound systems, seemed to be thriving. Massive crowds came to watch the Ramayana story being played out episode by episode, culminating in the 10th day’s burning of Ravana, the symbolic victory over evil.

But these crowds, largely poor or lower middle-class, came from all across the city, and had no particular connection with Old Delhi or its specific history of Ramlila. In this repect, they resembled the better-off families who came to see Shri Ram, a two-and-a-half-hour show enshrined, in post-Independence Delhi tradition, as the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK) Ramlila.

If the SBKK performance was almost exactly as I had imagined it—a proscenium performance involving an impressive Kathakali-dancing Ravana and grave, pithy English supertitles that interpreted the Lakshman Rekha scene, for instance, as the marker of ‘moral order’ where ‘transgression’ could have terrible consequences—the Old Delhi Ramlilas surprised me by being spectacles that were almost as anonymous and non-participatory as SBKK. Perhaps it was my fault, showing up expecting some organic cultural expression of community in a place where everyone knew everyone else. My Bollywood viewing should have given me a clue: an idealised representation like the one in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi-6 can only come into existence once that which is represented is no longer. The only form of participation possible was through collective consumption: of the performance, but more importantly of the ferris wheels, maut ka kuans and food stalls in Old Delhi, and the more sanitised papri chaat, samosas and chai that constitute SBKK’s attempt to replicate an imagined sheher.

In Mehrauli, a neighbourhood most known for the Qutb Minar, I found the Shree Rama Dramatic Club. A rapt audience, packed tight as sardines, watched as a loud-voiced Hanuman strode about in a cloud of white air. Behind him was a portly prompter in a pink shirt, intermittently visible when, overcome by emotion, he raised his hand to the heavens. Scenes were hurriedly ended to accommodate bhajans by one Mohanlal ji, the quality of whose singing implied he must be important in the mahalla for some other reason. When Samudra Dev appeared, the woman next to us giggled and held her breath: it was her husband. He was doubling up as Kaushalya, but that part was ours if we wanted it. “Par aapko dekha nahin pehle yahan, naye aayein hain kya (Haven’t seen you before. Are you new to the locality)?” said the woman. The community couldn’t have been less anonymous. And there was no mela in Mehrauli.

One might, on the basis of this stop-go ethnography, propose a neat little stage-by-stage theory, with largely lower-middle-class Mehrauli as the sole surviving bastion of local community and living tradition, if it weren’t for the fact that at the other end of Mehrauli Bazaar was an equally large crowd watching—on a large screen specially set up for the duration of Navratri by the local BJP MLA—Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan.

Some necessary context here: the broadcast of Sagar’s Ramayan from 1987 to 1990 marked a huge departure from the non-religious programming that had characterised Indian state television until then. It has been suggested that the mass-mediatised crystallisation of a Hindu viewing public around the figure of Ram was integral to the rise of an aggressive Hindu nationalist politics focused on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue.

In a strange way, Mehrauli’s decision to showcase a 1980s television serial as the accepted ‘true’ Ramayana is only the final step in a continuum. The Ramlila in Old Delhi is already halfway there, with its ‘actors’ actually only lip-synching to a recorded soundtrack. And the SBKK Ramlila has been performed in the same way, to the same musical recording, for 54 years.

Last week, when Delhi University’s Academic Council arrived at a decision to withdraw from the undergraduate history syllabus an essay called ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’, it was kowtowing to the singular vision of Rama’s tale that Ramanand Sagar anointed as indelible truth. The right-wing objection to the essay—an elegant piece by the late AK Ramanujan about the diverse narratives that go by the name ‘Ramayana’—is that its non-judgemental account of Jain, Buddhist, Tamil or Thai tellings undermines the Valmiki-plus-Tulsidas version that most north Indian Hindus perceive as religious truth.

Ramanujan speaks of the Jaina Ramayana of Vimalasuri, in which Ravana is not an evil demon but a great Jaina ascetic undone by his passion for Sita, and of a Kannada folk Ramayana in which Sita is born of Ravana’s own womb—essentially a story about a daughter causing the death of her incestuous father. He points to differences between Valmiki’s Sanskrit and Kampan’s more dramatic Tamil. He describes Ramayanas for whom Sita is the main focus, and others that centre on Ravana.

But the essay also provides a vivid sense of the Ramayana as an ur-narrative, from whose characters and events our values and metaphors spring. And every fresh telling builds on that sense of always already there-ness: in one, when Sita pleads with Ram about accompanying him into exile, she clinches the argument by bursting out, “Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one in which Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?”

We have reached a stage in our modernity when we seem to believe that the only way to hold on to traditions is to immobilise them, recording final definitive versions from which any departure is either unnecessary or sacrilegious. The SBKK probably thinks of itself as far away from Ramanand Sagar. But traditions do not live when they are frozen. It is only by inhabiting them—letting them change us, and letting ourselves change them—that we will ever succeed in keeping them alive.