I was devastated to know yesterday that the Ramlila performed locally in hundreds of places all over North India leading to the festival of Dussehra had been banned from next year. The reason was the rumours of arson that led to the stampede and death of dozens of people gathered to watch the yearly ritual of burning the effigies of Ravana, Kumbhakarana and Meghanatha, symbolising the victory of Good over Evil on Dussehra.
The staging of Ramlila is dearest to my heart. It is the enactment of the epic Ramayana in makeshift open air theatres erected especially for ten days in the months of October or November depending on the local calendar. Although it is celebrated by millions of people across huge swathes of the Gangetic Plains, it feels a local affair due to the extensive participation of the people of the community.
It is played out nightly through song, narration, recitation and dialogue. The audience is invited to participate through singing. There are sometimes impromptu talent shows by the locals in the breaks. The funds are raised locally and the actors are amateurs, drawn from the same social background as the audience. It is essentially a folk retelling of the epic. Small bazaars spring up those few nights to cater to the people making the visits for Ramlila.
In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed the tradition of Ramlila a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Ramlila signifies togetherness and continuity for me, my children and grandchildren. It is something that is passed on to the generations that come after us. If this rich tradition of my culture is asphyxiated to death, it would be a loss to all in my community, village, town, city…
Next year, I would hop on a plane to nearby Thailand to watch their version of my Ramlila for this tradition has sown its seeds far and wide, not just in the Indian subcontinent but wherever there is a sizeable Indian Diaspora.