Postcards from the past: Magic of Ramleela

They say that one must fulfil any promises given in writing for the fear of inviting gods’ (this is a plural since we have quite a few back where I come from) wrath. This is not really true and nobody had said it till I wrote it. But it does ring true. So as I promised in my last post, this one is going to be heart warming. I had a remarkably lucid moment the other day and I was inspired enough to come up with an idea for an umbrella series, “postcards from the past”, under which I will be posting vignettes from my time in India (all but last 12 years). I am not sure at this point if I will be able to come up with enough stories to justify calling it a series but I will try anyway. My intent will be to provide folks here with a prism through which to view Indian people and their culture.

Seeing as we are in the middle of the holiday season here in USA I thought I would describe a holiday tradition from my childhood. I have written about the Hindu festival of Diwali previously. Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama to his homeland after a 14 year exile. When I was growing up stage re-enactments of Rama’s story called Ramleela (literal meaning is Rama’s play) were performed throughout India. It was very popular back then but I am not sure how well it has survived to this day. Ramleela is basically a 10 day long public play (think nativity plays around Christmas for an analogy) designed to end on the day of the festival of Vijaydashmi (Vijay means victory and dashmi refers to the fact that the festival is on the tenth day of the lunar month). This festival, which precedes Diwali, celebrates Rama’s slaying of the demon king Ravana during the exile. You can refer to a somewhat humorous version of the story behind Ramleela in my post on Diwali.

Staging of Ramleela in my village was an annual tradition, which my cousins and I looked forward to with much glee and anticipation, not unlike children here looking forward to Christmas. The open air stage for the performance was set up on the corner of two unnamed dusty streets (most streets in India do not have any names, you find your way solely through landmarks and by asking around). One street was bounded by a big farm and the other by a swamp. It was the perfect setting for the production in a strange way. The stage was at most 3 blocks away from my house. Every evening after dinner we left wrapped up in shawls and blankets (it is a unique spectacle in fall and winter in Indian villages — people walk around covered in blankets!!) to ward off the evening winter chill. There were no seats of course. Most people would sit cross-legged on the street. Some of us would climb on the nearby temple wall crumbling down from neglect in order to get a better view. A guy on the side of the road roasted grains of corn on his cast iron pan (this is before I knew to call it pop-corn). Another vendor selling peanuts and other savory treats  was always around. After making sure that we had enough provisions for the night we would settle down, huddled close together under the open skies to watch the play.

It is important to describe the “ambience” of the play. This was a highly informal setting. We didn’t have to sit in silence. We would chat among ourselves, stretch our legs occasionally and enjoy the treats we had just bought. Some of the villagers would start makeshift fires on the side to warm themselves. The orange glow of the fire mingled with the fog that drifted in on some nights hinted at an unearthly presence.The open air stage was brightly lit and colorfully decorated. For us kids it was a magical occasion. Characters from one of our favorite stories had sprung to life and they were here to entertain us for ten nights straight. The fact that none of the actors were professionals added a charming and whimsical twist to the religious drama. In fact every year one or more of my uncles on my dad’s side had a starring role. My dad’s twin brother always played the lead role of Rama. The oh so dramatic musical fanfare was provided by a tabla player and a harmonium player. Each night between the acts there was an event just for the children. Little ones waited in line with their parents for their turn to be taken on the magic stage where one of the actors would pick them up and sing a soothing lullaby. Something very similar to how kids here go and sit in Santa’s lap and make a wish. Each night’s performance was usually two to three hours long at the end of which we walked back home sleepy and slightly achy but content in the knowledge that the fun will resume the next night.

Looking back at it all what I miss the most is the spirit of a community coming together. As we get ready to celebrate Christmas it is important to remind ourselves to not get wrapped up in wrapping presents so to speak but instead enjoy the coming together of friends and family. Happy holidays everyone.

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