As a youngster, I remember Ramleela plays being staged around this time of the year in the villages on the Corentyne. Older citizens inform me that the plays were also staged in their villages in Demerara and Essequibo. Schools used to stage the drama without any religious identification, and students of all ethnicities performed in the plays seeing them as literary performances.
Researchers say Ramleela is the longest surviving open-air drama in the Caribbean. It is a popular play staged all over North India where most Indo-Guyanese trace their roots and the jahajees (indentured labourers) introduced it to the region. Ramleela is one of the most interesting traditional folk festivals among Indians with its creative skills and performances. The plays seem to be a fading art form in Guyana as migration has taken a toll on the nation from the 1970s to now. The plays are now staged in New York annually and other areas where the Indo-Guyanese diaspora is settled. However, the nature of life in NY makes it difficult to stage nightly Ramleela plays. Instead, many flock to Dussehra and Garba performances, also known as stick dance, which are staged in NY on weekends during the Navratri period, attracting huge audiences.
The Ramleela is performed from the reading of a narrative from the Hindu epic Ramayana. The Ramleela is a very elaborate theatrical performance, the longest known play in the Caribbean, and it takes nine nights of about three hours each to perform it. In Guyana, the stage was a large open field. The cricket grounds or someone’s yard was the stage with an elevated platform, while in New York the smaller school auditoriums have to suffice because of space issues. As in Guyana, the performers tend to march through to the rhythms of tassa drums in celebratory fashion with people in the audience dancing to the rhythm. The plays are staged in both Hindi and English.
While the Ramleela play is fading in Guyana, it remains extremely popular in Trinidad. I was in Trinidad last week and there were some 30 productions all over the island at the same time attracting huge crowds. It was a remarkable form of entertainment. The play is staged for free with funding coming from the government as well as sponsors from the communities.
In Trinidad, several schools also perform the drama. The plays tend to attract massive crowds and serve as a night bazaar with foods and other goodies on sale. Bleachers are constructed to accommodate the large audience. The characters of Ramleela are colourful, with each having their own distinct personality and costuming.
In Trinidad, visitors are enthralled by the colourful costumes and decorations and the elaborate design of the stage and lights. I am told by a Guyanese visitor to Guadeloupe that a Ramayana performance is staged during Navratri with the Indo-Guadeloupians seeking to return to their Indian roots. I visited the island a few years ago and wrote about the renewed link to India. Ramleela is also popular in Fiji, Mauritius, Natal, South Africa, and Suriname, as I found out during recent visits for academic research. UNESCO in 2005 declared Ramleela a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible heritage of the world.
Efforts should be made to restage the plays in Guyana, as Ramleela is an exciting project for community organizations to teach and stage. It will provide experience for those seeking to get into professional acting. It could also attract tourists and add money to the coffers.