Of Ramleelas in Jammu

Ashok Kumar
In view of Covid_19 pandemic, Ramleela, being telecast live by Door Darshan during Navratris and also on internet on You Tube Channel and other social media sites as ‘Ayoudhya ki Ramlila’,has brought back memories of the days when Ramleela used to be organised and watched with great pomp & show.
The fact that renowned Bollywood actors such as Raza Murad, Bindu Dara Singh, Asrani, Ravi Kishan,Shahbaz Khan, Rakesh Bedi to name a few are enacting the various important characters of Ramayana in ‘Ayoudhya ki Ramlila’,make it worth watching all the more. Lord Rama is reverred as the 7th incarnation of God Vishnu and He is the central character of the Hindu scripture ‘Ramayana’ composed by Maharishi Balmiki.Thus,Ram Lilas, as the name implies, are the venerated art forms performed on the stage to depict the main events of the life of Lord Rama including his birth, marriage, exile, abduction of Ma Sita by Demon King Ravana, sorrow and grief of Lord Rama and Laxman and war with the Demon King Ravana culminating in Ravana’s death. Ramalilas which were declared as one of the ‘intangible cultural heritage for humanity ‘ by UNESCO in 2008, are believed to have started hundreds of years ago in India including the northern India. In our own Jammu region, Ramleela are said to have been performed in Reasi, Basohli, Udhampur, Ramkot, Thial, Dewan Mandir, Jammu and many other parts of Duggar since the 19th or the early twentieth century and have been much popularwith the people converging from distant places to watch Ram lilas at these places, though these were performed in every nook and corner of Jammu region. Established in 1890, Durga Natak Academy, Reasi has been staging Ramleela carrying on the legacy of its founders. Acknowledged at the National level, Ramleela at Basohli dates back to as early as 1911 and it continues to be one of the most famous Ramleela in Jammu region. Thescenes such as glowing of Laxman Rekha, descending of Hanumana carrying the mountain with him etc are meticulously planned and executed. Similarly ,in Udhampur & Garhi, Ram Kala Kendra and Mahavir Youth Kala Kendra respectively did a yeoman’s work in promoting Ramleela, which also produced many artists of eminence. Ramleela at Ramkote dates back to as early as 1931 when Raja Raghunath Singh father of the last king Raja Laxman Singh, started the tradition of performing Ramleelas. While curtains for the Ramleela were brought from Lahore, actors were invited from Jammu to stage Ram Leela. People from far and wide used to converge at Ramkote to watch Ramleela at Ramkote in the nineteen eighties. Ramleela staged by Ram Natak Club, Thial used to be so popular that people from the adjoining villages would trek for miles with torches and burning twigs to watch Ramleela at Thial.The historic Ramleela organised in the premises of Shri Sanatan Dharam Natak Samaj, Dewan Mandir, Jammu is said to have been performed for more than a century and a half and is still very popular with the people.In the same way, Ramleela performed at Jaganoo, Panthal, Bhaddu, Katra & Ramnagar used to attract a large number of people, who, in some cases, would hire buses to travel to long distances to watch Ramleelas.
In the days gone by,as Navratris commenced and time of Ram Lilas came,there used to be a lot of enthusiasm and joy in the people,especially the children. People would finish their domestic chores as early as possible so that they could go to the venueswhere Ramleela used to be performed. At a time when financial condition of most of the people was not so sound,they would carry pine twigs or torches in the dark nights to trek their long way to the venue of Ramleela. In case of venue being near,some of them,especially the children, would carry their mats too with them. Ramleela used to be performed in the open,there being generally only one or two rooms to store the costumes, bows and arrows and other paraphernalia or for the actors to get prepared for the act. The married daughters would come to their paternal homes to watch Ramleela in case there was no Ramleela being staged near their homes. During the Navratris,it was almost like a mela at the place where Ramleela was performed. Some hawkers,especially dealing in eatables and tea had a brisk business. As it took a lot of time for the actors to prepare for the next scene,generally some comic or religious act was performed or some Bhajan recited to sustain the interest of the viewers. Normally,Ramleela would start around 9 PM and end around 12 mid night. Only four or five scenes were displayed in one night after which it was time for the viewers to trek their long way back home in groups with discussion on the performance & role of various characters. A solemn and religious atmosphere would prevail at the venue of Ramleela and the viewers responded enthusiastically with a loud ‘Jai’ as someone from the stage uttered ‘Sri Ram Chander ji ki’. An office bearer of the Ramleela Club would go to each spectator with a thali containing holy jyot and all the people would bow before the jyot and pour some donation in the thali. Viewers would also donate money to the Ramleela Clubs or award money to the actors for their excellent performance.During the day children would make improvised bows and arrows in villages from sticks & twigs and ropes and enact the various characters of Ramleela . The older boys would deliver dialogues between Lord Parshurama & Lakshmana, Angada and Ravana, Ravana and Jatayu and other characters and sang Bhajans sung in Ramleela. With a lot of time at their disposal and in the absence of social media,they would amuse themselves by playing various characters and often memorising the dialogues. The pathetic scenes such as Sita Haran (kidnapping of Sita), Ram Banwaas (Rama’s exile), Bharat Milap (Reunion of Lord Rama with Bharata) etc would bring tears in the eyes of the spectators,especially girls and the women. On the last day,some special scenes would be displayed attracting a large number of audience. On the eve of Dussehra,big effigies of Demon king Ravana, Kumbhkarna and Meghnad were burnt to hive the message that good always triumphs over the evil. In those days,the role of female charcters was performed by men who did their best to convey the real feelings and emotions.The people from all communities cutting across caste,creed, religion and sect would participate in & watch Ramleela. Surprisingly,all this was funded by the local people with no outside help and the actors received no money for performing their role. Largely this performance including the recitation of Bhajans would be based on Ram Chritmanas composed in the 16th century by Tulsidas. The venue used to be overcrowded and people would try to reach earlier to reserve a seat for them. For days together,we,as children, used to be under the spell of Ramleela with delivering dialogues quite often as we played with eachother at home or in the fields while grazing cattle or doing other jobs.Though Ramleela, which used to be a religious, culture and festive event those days,they left an indelible impression on the minds of the viewers, especially the children and consciously or unconconsciouly,the values such as obedience, respect for elders, sacrifice, empathy, high sense of morality etc would be ingrained in them with the result that there were few cases of conflicts,murders,suicides in those days and people would be more tolerant ,empathetic and cooperative. Later, with the help of modern technology, Ramleela used to be performed in a better way making use of lights, sounds and other systems and role of female characters came to be performed by the women.
Then came Ramananda Sagar’s TV serial Ramayana which ushered in a revolution of some sort. The cities & towns wore a deserted look during while the serial was telecast. The young would carry the old on their backs to the houses which had a TV set. There used to be huge rush of people eager to watch Ramayana outside the TV shops. On the auspicious and important days such as birthdays, marriage anniversaries/ceremonies, Mundans etc,the celebrations would invariably end with the playing of the CDs of Ramayana on the hired VCRs/VCPs and in some cases TV sets too. A large number of people from the adjoining villages would coverge to watch Ramayana with the atmosphere turning solemn & religious.
These days, though some people are trying to keep this cultural and religious tradition alive, they are facing acute shortage of funds. People, especially the youth and the children have little time to watch Ramleela as they prefer to remained glued to their mobile phoes/other electronic gadgets rather than watching Ramleela. Generally, it is thought that Ramleela are the shows to be watched by commoners.But the scenes showing triumph of good over evil, dangers of lust, importance of loyality, respectfor elders, fraternal love, sacrifice etc have a great impact on the lives of children and parents should encourage their children to watch Ramleela and actively participate in Vijay Dashmi & Dussehra celebrations to develop in them higher values of life.
Ramleela is being telecast live daily from Laxman Qila,Ayodhya by Door Darshan from 7 PM to 9 PM during Navratris and many famous actors such as Raza Murad, Asrani, Vindu Dara Singh, Manoj Tiwari, Ravi Kishan etc are performing the role of various characters of Ramayana.
(The writer is serving as lecturer in English in Govt. Hr.Sec.School, Thial (Udhampur)