Ramlila: the Traditional Performance
of the Ramayana
 

Ramlila, literally “Rama’s play”, is a performance of the Ramayana epic in the form of a series of scenes that include song, narration, recital and dialogue. It is performed across the whole of northern India during the festival of Dussehra, held each year according to the ritual calendar around the month of October or November. The most representative Ramlilas are those of Ayodhya, Ramnagar and Benares, Vrindavan, Almora, Sattna and Madhubani

img

This staging of the Ramayana is based on the Ramacharitmanas, one of the most popular story-telling forms in the north of the country. This sacred text to the glory of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was composed by Tulsidas in the sixteenth century in a dialect that is close to Hindi in order to make the Sanskrit epic available to all. The majority of the Ramlilas recount episodes from the Ramacharitmanas through a series of performances lasting an average of ten to twelve days, but some, such as Ramnagar’s, may last a whole month.

Hundreds of festivals are organized in each settlement, town or village during the Dussehra festival season celebrating Rama’s return from exile. Ramlila is particularly focused on recalling the battle between Rama and Ravana and consists of a series of dialogues between the gods, sages and the faithful. Ramlila’s dramatic force stems from the succession of icons representing the climax of each scene. The audience is constantly invited to sing and take part in the narration. The cycle of plays culminates with Diwali, the festival of light, the moment when the effigy of Ravana is burned, symbolizing the victory of good over evil. The Ramlila brings the whole population together, without distinction of caste, religion or age. The play is also characterized by the spontaneity with which all the villagers participate, playing roles or taking part in all kinds of activities involved in the performances, such as making the masks, costumes, doing the make-up, effigies, lights, etc.

In families that have traditionally been engaged in these performances, the young members are no longer keen to take over because of the lack of artistic recognition and the limited remuneration. The growth of the mass media, particularly television soap-operas, is leading to a reduction in the normal audience for the Ramlila plays, which are therefore losing their main role of bringing people and different communities together.