The performance tradition of Ramlila returned to Guyana with last week’s production by the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha at the National Cultural Centre.  That seems to have been the 2009 edition of the annual theatre performed by the Nritya Sangh, the dance company and cultural arm of that Hindu organisation.  That group has established a consistent theatre with annual shows called Naya Zamana with a mission to instruct and promote the culture among the “new generation.”  This year that aim was achieved through the decidedly successful staging of a dance drama that belongs to a noble ancient tradition.
This production was the grandest, the most spectacular, most thoroughly staged and competently performed, perhaps the most meaningful and the best theatrical work to be done so far by this group.  Directed by Dr Vindhya Vasini Persaud and choreographed by her and Trishala Simantini Persaud, it confirms the capacity of this cultural outfit for the production of classy and professional theatre.  They took on an ambitious dance drama from the Ramayana.

Ramlila is one of the most interesting traditional folk festivals in the Caribbean and is quite remarkable for its spectacle, creative skills, as a communal theatrical work, as a religious celebration, for its religious teaching and as instruction in and promotion of values.  Of all the Caribbean territories to which it was brought by the indentured immigrants from North India, it has best survived in Trinidad where it is still vibrant as an annual festival in the villages west of Chaguanas in Central Trinidad.

Pretima Prashnajeet (Sita) and some of the dancers from Ramlila (A Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha photo)
Pretima Prashnajeet (Sita) and some of the dancers from Ramlila (A Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha photo)

It is also well known in Guyana, but regular performances faded out decades ago.  There is no reliable information about its continuance today, although cultural commentator Rakesh Rampertab recently reported that it is still practised.  In this part of the world Ramlila has fitted into the regional tradition of the carnivalesque, with the different calendar festivals,  masquerades, carnival masques, street processions, public and folk theatre.  The ‘carnivalesque’ describes a widely distributed cultural form of traditional celebration or performance in which celebrants take to the streets in a procession involving masques, costume, sometimes drama, dance and music.  While it is a distinct Caribbean tradition it is not unique to the region; it belongs to other cultures as well and the Ramlila, which has its own qualities, is a very good illustration of this.

In the Caribbean this performance is also known as Ram-Leela (or ramleela) and in the Trinidadian villages it is refered to as ramdilla.  This is a very elaborate theatrical performance staged annually by villagers in at least four locations in Central Trinidad with the best known taking place in Felicity.  It is the longest known play and it takes nine or ten days to perform it.  The stage is a large field with sections of the set built at various corners of the area.  This stage also extends to the village streets as the performers also march through to the rhythms of tassa drums in celebratory fashion.
Although inevitably Caribbeanised in small ways, Ramlila remains faithful to its original tradition in India.  It is a great dramatisation of Hindu myth.  The word means “Ram’s lila” which is “Ram’s play” and as suggested by that, it enacts in play form, the story of the great god – king – warrior Lord Rama (Ram), king of Ayodhya.  It is set in Uttar Pradesh, called the heartland, home of the deity-king held sacred to the Hindu religion.  Ram is fabled as the perfect man and the prime example of what a good king ought to be.  His wife Sita, said to be an earthly form of the godess Lakshmi, is also a symbol of virtue, purity and chastity and her story illustrates faithfulness in extreme adversity.

The Ramlila, ram-leela or ramdilla play is performed with the reading of a narrative while the elaborately costumed actors mime and dance the story.  Rama is the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu who in answer to a plea for help to rid the world of evil, decided to be re-born as Prince Rama, son of King Dashrat and Queen Kaushalya in Ayodhya.  The story is long and complex, but the main plot of the play is centred on the exile of Rama from the kingdom, the adventures of his wife Sita and brother Lakshman who go with him into the forest.  The main action surrounds the abduction of Sita by Ravan (Rawan/Ravana) the demon king of Lanka and the great battle waged by Ram with the help of Hanuman to defeat Ravan and rescue Sita.  It ends with Ram’s return to accept the throne in Ayodhya.

This is the ancient theatrical tradition that was revived on stage in Guyana by Dr Persaud and the Hindu Dharmic Sabha.  It was a formal stage production of the dance drama, not the outdoor version in the folk tradition.  And it was a judiciously trimmed, well organised, succinct two-hour performance, not the usual village production that runs to almost 40 hours stretching over nine or ten nights. But it was a very instructive show of what this tradition is.

Exactly when the large-scale performance of Ram-leela faded out in Guyana has not been accurately documented, but a return to this epic drama by the Hindu Dharmic Sabha demonstrates a way in which an institution like this can properly and meaningfully preserve a theatrical form and contribute to the expressions of the culture of a nation.  It can achieve this brand of cultural expression while also performing its other purpose, which is religious instruction on the themes of Hinduism.

The script used for this production was the one commonly used in Ramlila performances.  It was taken from the work of the saintly Gosvani Tulsidas (1543-1623) poet and philosopher of Uttar Pradesh who, although a scholar of Sanskrit, was famous for writing in dialects of Hindi which the populace could understand.  He wrote the story of Ram in verse in the epic  Ramacharitamanasa  (the lake of the deeds of Ram), but this was his translation from the original work in Sanskrit by Valmiki, the famous Ramayana.
Persaud’s highly polished production omitted several segments of the story normally treated in the village performances, as it had to.  The story told was neat and complete, but one piece of interest left out was the role played by Vibishan, brother of Ravan, who was so unlike the Lankan monarch in his willingness to be reasonable, fair and honourable.  The narrative was read followed by the performers miming the enactment or dancing accompanied by music.  This style of performance might have been intensified if more of it was dance and less was mime, and if more was done to live music and singing.  The presence of a live band of musicians and singers on stage surely enhanced the show, and it might have been a further satisfaction to use them for more of the drama.

That aside, the miming was confident, disciplined and interesting to look at, and was part of the overall scheme of choreography.  In between there were good sequences of dance, in particular the dance of the golden deer (dancer unnamed) used by Ravan in the capture of Sita; the dance and performance of Omkar Tewari as Ram and Pretima Prashnajeet as Sita; and the demoness Surpnaka.  These were complemented by convincing acting and miming by Avinash Mangal as Lakshman, and the commanding presence of an appropriately portrayed Ravan by Mohamed Khan.  To those may be added the performance of Poonam Balgrim as Manthara, Kaikeyi by Ananda Lachman and Hanuman by Elton Prashad..

Notably, there was all-round effective performance even in such minor roles as the Rakshasa girls who tormented Sita while she was Ravan’s prisoner.  The performance was excellently supported by Trishala Persaud’s costuming which was detailed, meticulous and a great part of the splendour and spectacle of the production.  Another factor in the outstandingly colourful presentation was the set which also enhanced the grandeur.

The significance of bringing this play to the stage becomes greater because of the multiple gains.  It served the religious purpose of the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha in spreading the Hindu gospel in a very attractive way.  The audience was exposed to another important piece of theatre from India.  What is more important than that is its treatment of a story and theme which are also central to a cultural form that now belongs to the Caribbean and that many might have heard of but never had the opportunity to see since it has vanished from Guyana.

However, even more than that, too, is the message of good triumphing over evil in Ram’s victory over Ravan, and the encouragement of faith, faithfulness and virtue in the story of Sita, and the human values that are relevant to the whole audience.  Then, of supreme importance, is that it gave memorable entertainment while doing all of those.

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