Dharmic Sabha pursuing revival of Ramlila in Guyana

Part of a 2017 performance of Ramlila (Photo credit: Ayodhya Shodh Sanathan website)

Throughout last week there were performances of Ramlila at venues across Guyana. These were done by a performing group from the Ayodhya Research Institute of India, hosted by the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha which took them to the locations in rural communities for four performances: Groeneveldt (Leonora), Yakusari (Black Bush Polder), Tain and Bath.

The visiting troupe also held workshops in acting, costume and voice “to encourage the emergence of local Ramlila groups” and support the building of “local Ramlila performances across Guyana”. This is also part of a Caribbean network as the Dharmic Sabha is collaborating with the National Council for Indian Culture in Trinidad to host Ramlila in the Caribbean in 2018. There was a deliberate effort, according to Head of the Dharmic Sabha Dr Vindhya Persaud, to expose communities across Guyana to this experience for obvious reasons – to revive the Ramlila cultural tradition.

And indeed, these stage appearances by the Ayodhya Research Institute in rural Guyana are very significant for a number of reasons. These include, of course, the history of Ramlila in Guyana, the tradition itself, the origin and preoccupation of the performing group, and the fact that they appeared in Guyanese villages.

The visitors from Ayodhya performed dramatisations from the Ramayana, a Hindu holy text – specifically Ramlila which is taken from that text. Ramlila is also represented in different variants, which include “Ram Lila”, “Ram-leela” or “Ramdilla” as it is called in the creole language of some Trinidadian villages where it is performed. The word means “Ram’s play” (as “lila” means “play”) and the performance tells the story of Lord Ram (Rama) a deity important to the Hindu religion, known as an earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu, worshipped in Hinduism and appearing as a prince and eventually a king, in Hindu mythology. This performance became a tradition in Guyana and Trinidad in which villagers perform the play in their communities. 

It thrives in Trinidad where there is a season every year a few weeks before Diwali, observed in several villages with a focus in the central region of the island. The most famous locations are around Chaguanas and a few areas in the south. It has now spread to other places in the north.  But while it is becoming even more prominent around Trinidad, it has faded away and is no longer seen in the villages of Guyana. That is why the Dharmic Sabha wants to rekindle it in the rural communities. The Nritya Sang, the dance theatre group of the religious organisation, directed by Vindhya Persaud, has performed it on stage, and there is another group called the Guyana Ramlila Association that performs short extracts on stage with an interest in revival.  The National School of Theatre Arts and Drama also created a play by Subraj Singh dramatising the story of Rama and Sita. But as a village tradition it is extinct.

Another point of significant interest is that the performing group came from Ayodhya in the region of Uttar Pradesh in India. That is where Ram was born as the son of King Dacaratha (Dasharata), himself becoming king of Ayodhya. The Ayodhya Research Institute has kept the traditional Ramayana performances alive in India, sustaining constant performances.         

This Caribbean tradition originated in India and was brought over by indentured servants. The source of the stories is the Ramayana, originally written by Valmiki. However, Goswami Tulsidas, a Hindu ascetic, scholar, writer and holy devotee of Hanuman, was very concerned that the Ramayana was written in Sanskrit, the ancient language of learning. This made the text inaccessible to the multitudes of uneducated in the Indian countryside. Tulsidas himself (said to be a reincarnation of Valmiki) wrote in languages that such people could understand, and he then translated the Ramayana, reproducing it in one of those local languages, in a text called the Ramcharitmanas. But he then went further to dramatise it by writing Ram’s Play—Ramlila—which was performed in villages for the education of the people. They were then able to see the principles of Hinduism dramatised through the exemplary conduct of Ram and Sita.

This is the longest play in the world. As performed today in Trinidad it is in excess of 40 hours long and is performed for three to four hours per night for 9 or 10 nights on open fields in villages. 

The Ayodhya performers presented one part of the lengthy and complex story, which was extremely vivid. This sequence included circumstances leading up to the marriage between Ram and Sita, Ram lifting the bow to pass the test and permission for their marriage being granted. 

In that story, Sita, who was believed to be the daughter of the goddess of the earth, was recognised as someone very special and exceptional by King Janaka of Mithila who was her adopted father. He therefore put in place very exacting conditions to be met by anyone who wanted to marry her. He himself was the descendant of a very noble line. He had in his possession the bow of the god Shiva, which had been in the care of his ancestors through many generations. He laid down the condition that only the suitor who could string that bow would win Sita in marriage. He knew it was impossible for any ordinary mortal to even lift the bow, let alone string it, so he wanted to make sure he found a husband of the highest calibre for Sita.

Several great kings and princes failed this test. But Ram was an avatar, the reincarnation of Vishnu, and no ordinary mortal. He visited King Janaka accompanied by his brother Lakshman and was given permission to attempt the test. He was the only one capable, and easily lifted the bow, bent it and strung it, and Janaka was happy to formalise the wedding. They included the appearance of another avatar who, not knowing the identity of Ram, was violently angry when he heard that the bow had been bent, but Ram was able to subdue him and get him to calmly understand what had transpired.

All of this was effectively and clearly dramatised by the actors, actresses and dancers who performed at a high professional level. They were able to transcend language barriers. With a sensitivity towards an audience and an understanding of entertainment, they mixed humour with solemn and moving drama. Considerable laughter was evoked by their farcical playing of boastful suitors who came and failed to lift and in some cases, even touch the bow. At the other end of the spectrum were the rage and aggression of the angry avatar and the high-tension, powerfully-charged exchange between him and Lakshman, ending in the contrasting peace and calm which followed at Ram’s intervention. This added to the strong sense of romantic energy in the sequence between Ram and Sita.

The power of the costuming demonstrated what was expected. Indian theatre is extremely strong and effectively fortified by spectacle. The costuming was colourful, intricate and detailed in all instances. Skill at the fabrication of props was also in evidence.

It was an experience to see this performance by actors from India to appreciate what is done in Uttar Pradesh in this performance tradition. It was of interest to learn that the Ramayana which was transported to the Caribbean in the memory and consciousness of indentured Indians more than 100 years ago is still preserved at its birthplace. The Uttar Pradesh performers did a stage play with lines learned. The villagers in Trinidad, and the pieces reconstructed in Guyana do a performance in the field driven by the reading of a narrative. The indentured workers would have had no scripts with lines to learn. They acted, mimed and danced to the narration and comments of the narrator accompanied by tassa drums.

A live demonstration from India was thus very instructive and a priceless experience. There remains the hope that those performances in rural communities will inspire some spark of regeneration.

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