Performance Traditions at the Jhanda Saheb Ramlila

in Article
Published on: 01 June 2018

Lokesh Ohri

Lokesh Ohri, a PhD from the Department of Anthropology, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, is CEO, Heritage Interpretation & Development Founder, REACH (Rural Entrepreneurship for Art & Cultural Heritage); Director-Programmes, Virasat Arts' & Heritage Festival, Dehradun; Convenor, INTACH, Dehradun Chapter; Co-convenor, INTACH, Uttarakhand; and CEO, 'Been There Doon That?'

His research is focused on Uttarakhand Himalaya, especially the Jaunsar Bawar region. Books authored by him include 'Suspended Beliefs: The Bridges of Uttarakhand' (2017), 'On the Pilgrim Trail to Kedarnath' (2016), 'Upper Ganga Region: Cultural Resource Mapping' (2014-15), 'Been There, Doon That' (2010) and 'Chakravyuh: Theatre of the Found Space' (2006). 'Human in Khaki' (2009), a book co-authored by him, has been translated into five regional languages in India and received the prestigious Govind Ballabh Pant Award for literature on police reform and human rights from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. He has also presented research papers and articles in several international publications.


Sustenance and Identity of an Art Form in the Valley of Dehra Dun


India is a country of kaleidoscopic contrasts. Over a billion people inhabit the diverse region. Yet, there is a common instinct that binds people in India, it is an instinct found in the philosophy, music, arts and tradition. Theatre forms like the Ramlila mirror this unity embedded in diversity. Elements of particularised folk tradition co-mingle with the pan-Indian tradition in myriad ways, usually to connect the human with the divine.


In keeping with the folk theatre traditions of India, the Ramlila enacted in September-October in northern India is more in the nature of a pageant where the public arenas are effectively the stage. It is not a dramatic spectacle, but a ritual in which tableaus are interspersed with processions. Boys or men represent the main characters, both male and female (Asuras, Rama, Sita, Lakshmana). They are the incarnations of the sacred. The demons in Ramlila are presented as huge, masked effigies usually crafted by Muslim craftsmen (Joshi 1966).


A Tradition in Dehra


This paper deals with a folk rendition of Ramlila that emerged in the west Himalayan valley of Dehra Dun, a city earlier referred to as the Dehra, borrowing its name from dera or the camp of the udaseen religious leader, Guru Ram Rai (Dobhal 2001). The sect established by the Guru combined elements of Sikh, Mughal and Pahari or hill traditions. While the trading community that set up businesses taking advantage of lucrative concessions in the hills brought in the mainstream traditions from the neighboring towns of Saharanpur and Kankhal (in Hardwar) to initiate a syncretistic tradition of Ramlila, they received patronage and artistic support owing to the Durbar's commitment to Hindustani classical music. Local performative traditions, like the Pandavlila, were amalgamated to create this form of the Ramayana, unique in its approach to the epic. The Ramlila tradition earlier referred to simply as the Ramlila, later came to be known as the Shivaji Samiti Ramlila, deriving its name from the trust that provided it a home in its inn or dharamshala. With time, however, the classical Ramlila has fallen victim to the general trend of Bollywood-inspired performance. The Shivaji Samiti Ramlila has yielded space and place to the more contemporary Adarsh Ram Lila, which itself is battling for survival. What are the reasons for this downswing in fortune? What does the future hold for this performing tradition born out of the confluence of several cultural streams?


Pan-Indian Ramlila


Across South Asia, the performance duration of Ramlila varies from seven to thirty-one days. It is one of the few ritual performances (generally) not yet overwhelmed by mindless deployment of technology, with dialogue and theatrics still dominant. Ramlila also has a predominance of processional floats, dialogue-based style and multi-locale staging. The marriage procession of Lord Rama called Ram Baraat and other processional rituals are also a part of the Ramlila pageant.


Ramlila itself is a subject encapsulating an immense vastness. The Ramayana of Valmiki, though seldom narrated, is present in every aspect of Rama's tales. It is Tulsidas' Ramacharitmanas that is chanted during performances of the Ramlila. Regional variations, in which folk elements have crept in, mark the Ramlila and enrich the performances of this epic that still has a universal appeal. In the words of Schechner (1983:238), writing in the context of the Ramnagar Ramlila:


The subject of Ramlila, even Ramnagar Ramlila alone, is vast. (As an analogy) I think of the story of Krishna's mouth. I have seen this story danced in Bharatanatyam. Krishna's mother fears that the little boy has put some dirt, something dangerous, in his mouth. She asks him to open his mouth. He refuses. She asks again and again, and finally he opens his mouth and she looks in. There, in amazement, bewilderment, even terror, she sees all the worlds. Contained in her baby's mouth is the unspeakable unmanifest Absolute. Revealed, Krishna closes his mouth, and with it his mother's memory of what she has experienced. The dance ends with mother and baby united once more simply as mother and baby. It is, approximately, something like this with Ramlila. I look into its mouth and see there all there is to be seen: but I cannot remember it. And I am not certain, even though I am an American, a rationalist, a Jew (talmudic: given to inquiries of all kinds) that I ought to remember what I have seen.


Ramlila Tradition in the Himalayas


As with other parts of India, Uttarakhand is also home to many old Ramlila traditions. Even though it may have originally travelled from the plains, the Himalayan art form has several unique regional features. The Ramlila tradition in the mountains is approximately 160 years old. While some experts consider the Rudraprayag Ramlila to be the oldest, since it was first performed in 1843, the credit for being the oldest major Ramlila tradition must go to the performances that began in Almora in 1860. The tradition in Almora has many significant established tenets. For instance, it is the first performance that projects the characters as of the mountains. Even though the narrative employs Hindi and Urdu dialogues, it is the localized and particular traits of the characters that lend it a distinctively regional flavor. Even though there is no major variation in the nature of the characters, the Garhwali and Jaunsari traditions are imbued with an abundance of nature descriptions that are so intrinsic to the lives of the denizens of the hills. 


The Ramman tradition from the village of Saloor Dungra from Chamoli District and the Ramchaadi from the Jaunsar-Bawar region are the foremost representative traditions of the Garhwal Himalayas.


It is noteworthy that while the Ramlila tradition based on the Ramcharitmanas narrative is performed in the Sharadiya Navaratra, the Ramman is performed during Vaishakh or winter months when the agricultural calendar grants relief from routine to the performers. The Jaunsar Ramchaadi, however, is performed during the Vasant Panchami celebrations. Both Ramman and Ramchadi have no exchange of dialogues between characters. While a jagari sings the entire Ramman, the drummer-bards in Jaunsar recite it.


The Tradition from Dehradun


The Jhanda Bazaar Shivaji Samiti Ramlila of Dehra Dun is a tradition that emerged out of the incidental syncretistic interactions between the imperatives of performing the Ramayana epic, the Hindustani classical music tradition of the Gwalior gharana, the patronage of the Durbar Guru Ram Rai and in some measure the Pandava theatrical tradition of Garhwal. This particularized tradition emerged on the edge of Garhwal, in the valley of Dehra Dun. The valley, now a bustling city and the interim capital of the state, borrows its name from the dera or camp of the Sikh udaseen religious leader, Guru Ram Rai. The Guru Ram Rai Durbar, a cenotaph described in local lore as ‘a monument of friendship’, built by Aurangzeb in honour of his friend, the udaseen fakir, Shri Guru Ram Rai, still marks the site of the camp. A unique fusion of Mughal, Sikh and Pahari architecture, the general layout of Guru Ram Rai’s mausoleum and the adjoining garden is similar to that of other mausoleums built by the Mughals.


The story of friendship between the Guru and the Mughal Emperor is interesting and is part of the Sikh-Mughal folklore. Alamgir Aurangzeb, who was a devout Sunni Muslim, had immense faith in the mystic powers of the Sufi fakirs and when he was told about the mystic powers of the Sikh Gurus, he sent for the seventh Sikh Guru, Har Rai, with the message that he should present himself at the Mughal Durbar. Guru Har Rai, instead, sent Guru Ram Rai, his elder son, to the Delhi Durbar with instructions that he should state matters of fact before the emperor.


According to the 'Mahima Prakash' (Bhalla 1776), the sacred book of the followers of the Guru, Aurangzeb was so impressed by the mystic powers of the Guru that he bestowed on him the title of qamil fakir and granted him the village Khera-Chandrawal near Majnu-ka-Tila in Delhi. It is said that Guru Ram Rai exhibited his mystic powers on 72 occasions in Delhi. On one occasion the Guru produced a three-legged goat. This particular incident and many others about the friendship between the two is depicted in the beautiful murals made by the masters of the Pahari (mountain) school of miniature painting in the Durbar Sahib complex, built by the later mahants or head priests of Guru Ram Rai’s udaseen parampara.


When his father, the Sikh Guru Har Rai, learnt about his son's display of mystic powers, he was so annoyed that he banished Guru Ram Rai and anointed his younger son, Guru Har Kishen as the next Sikh Guru. According to Sikh tradition, Guru Ram Rai on one occasion replaced the word musalman in a couplet from the Adi Granth to please Alamgir Aurangzeb. This particular couplet of Guru Nanak talks about there being no difference in the burial of Muslims and cremation of Hindus. The earth from the grave of the Muslim also finally ends up in the kiln of the potter. It is said that Guru Ram Rai replaced the expression musalman (Muslim) with beimaan (dishonest), to please the emperor. This enraged his father, who decided that his elder son was not fit to be the next Guru. His father's rage, ironically, won Guru Ram Rai the friendship of Aurangzeb and forced him to turn udaseen or the dissatisfied one. After being disinherited from the Sikh leadership, Guru Ram Rai stayed at the Delhi court for some time. Later, his younger brother Guru Har Kishen also joined him in Delhi. In Delhi, Guru Har Kishen died while serving people afflicted by an epidemic. According to udaseen literature, his brother Guru Ram Rai cremated him and visited Hardwar to immerse the ashes of the Sikh Guru in the Ganga. From Hardwar, he moved into Dehra Dun.


It is believed that Guru Ram Rai was in Delhi when the Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, offered his martyrdom. While his head was taken away by the masands to Anandpur, Guru Ram Rai cremated the body. Aurangzeb, in order to avoid a contest for Sikh leadership between Guru Ram Rai and Guru Gobind Singh, exiled Ram Rai to the valley of Dehra Dun. Guru Ram Rai thus came to the valley in 1675, and to help his friend, Aurangzeb issued an order to Raja Fateh Shah of Garhwal to accommodate him. The Raja welcomed the Guru and granted him seven villages in the Dehra Dun valley. And this is how the camp or dera of Guru Ram Rai came to be established in the valley and the town that evolved around it began to be called Dehra and later Dehra Dun. Since then, the Guru never went out of the Doon Valley except once, when he called on his uncle Guru Gobind Singh, who was staying at Paonta Sahib, across the river Yamuna. It is said that Guru Ram Rai and Guru Gobind Singh met on a boat in the middle of the river Yamuna to resolve their differences.


Guru Ram Rai passed away in 1689 at Dehra. When the news of the passing away of the Guru reached Aurangzeb, he was saddened and sent artisans with resources to build a befitting monument in honour of his friend. At the South Gate of the mausoleum is inscribed the story of Guru Ram Rai and Aurangzeb in 66 Persian verses, on a marble slab also sent by the Mughal Emperor. Soon the affairs of the dera of Guru Ram Rai came under the control of Mata Punjab Kaur, after the intervention of Guru Gobind Singh. The construction of the mausoleum of the Guru was carried out under her supervision and was completed in 1707. The main mausoleum and that of the wives’ and the typical Mughal gateways around it were painted in the Mughal style with floral motifs and calligraphy.


In the 19th century, from time to time, the later mahants or heads of the sect, built the other Durbar Sahib buildings and the samadhis or cenotaphs of the various sect leaders, in the typical Sikh architectural style. These buildings were also beautifully laid out with water bodies and gardens. The Jhanda Darwaza was completed in the 1880s. The uniqueness of the Durbar Sahib buildings lies in the murals painted in the Pahari style. These paintings are of great significance, as they are found nowhere else except in Dehradun and belong to the Garhwal School. One Tulsi Ram, who appears to have also done a self-portrait on the walls of the Jhanda Darwaza, painted most of these murals. Tulsi Ram, also known as Phattu Sah, is considered the last eminent painter of the Garhwal School. Tulsi Ram was the great grandson of the legendary Maula Ram who is rated one of the most significant painters of the Garhwal School. Barrister Mukandi Lal (1968), author of the book, Garhwal Painting, is credited along with his mentor, Ananda Coomaraswamy, with bringing the Garhwal school of painting before the world to admire. He has also written that Tulsi Ram was born in 1881 and died in 1950. Hence, he must have completed all these paintings at the turn of the 20th century. His father and his brother Kitchlu Sah might have done some of the paintings, which bear a slight difference in style. As most of the portraits are that of Mahant Prayag Das, it can be conjectured that they were made during his time. On the Jhanda Darwaza, or gateway, there are paintings depicting the times of the then mahant. The subjects of the paintings are varied: they cover the events in the life of the Guru, the saints of the udaseen parampara and scenes from Hindu mythology, specially the legend of Ram, Krishna and Shiva. A depiction that stands out is of Sita, Rama and Lakshmana about to leave the palace and enter exile, draped in leaves like ascetics. Renderings of the Krishna Lila and Vishnu on the main gateway are typical of the Pahari Schools.


Perhaps the most telling of the murals is that depicting a Carnatic Veena player. Sitting cross-legged, draped in a saree in the South Indian style, she may have been adapted from contemporary depictions by Raja Ravi Varma. The painting and several others depicting Naga Sadhus and court musicians, the traditional naubat or the fanfare, indicates the Durbar's fostering of classical music.


The Garhwal School murals are spread across the valley, in temples, shrines and havelis along the significant routes into the Garhwal Himalaya. One such mural at Kelaghat, along the Rispana river in the Rajpur area, depicts an incident from the local Ramayana, where, during the battle between the forces of Rama and Ravana, Lakshmana receives a potentially mortal blow and Hanumana is forced to take the aerial route to the Himalayas in search of the only herb that can cure him. The episode recounts how Hanumana, unable to locate the Sanjeevani herb, lifts the entire mountain. As he is flying over Ayodhya, onwards to Lanka, an iota of ego enters his mind about the magnitude of the task he is about to accomplish, and how it would please Lord Rama. At that very moment, Bharata's arrow (not intended for Hanumana) pierces the sky and strikes Hanumana, grounding him as well as his ego. When the mountain comes crashing into Ayodhya, Bharata realises that a delay in delivering the herb could prove fatal for his beloved cousin. Immediately, Hanumana is revived, made to mount Bharata's arrow, and once again re-launched in the direction of the battlefield. This mural depicts Hanumana, sitting on Bharata's arrow with the Dronagiri Mountain safely in hand, about to be launched towards Lanka.


Since the followers of Ram Rai are spread all over the north, the sect remains a unique synthesis of cultures as emanating from the hills, as, after the third mahant, all chief priests have been from Garhwal. The Garhwali mahants of the order have been carrying forward the distinctly Sikh-inspired tradition of Guru Ram Rai. Every year, five days after the Holi festival, the followers of the Guru gather at the mausoleum during the Jhanda-Ka-Mela or the Jhanda Fair to pay their respects to the Guru in their thousands. During the fair the Guru’s nishan or symbol is replaced and a new standard or jhanda is installed at the gateway.


It was during the time of the building of the Guru Ram Rai Durbar that a mosque known as Jama Masjid came up for the benefit of the masons and the construction workers. A bazaar known as Jhanda Bazaar also grew around it. Gradually, the vaishya traders in the vicinity came together to curate a Ramlila. The earliest references trace this Ramlila back to 1880, when a script was first prepared. Since the published master copy of the compositions dates back to this time, the tradition can be assumed to be much older. The 14th edition of the Ramlila script was last published in 1939, at Dehra Dun's Jugal Kishore Press under the tutelage of Vaidya Narayan Singh Aale, Pensioner Composer (Aale 1939). The compositions are by Jamunadas Vaishya, who has brought out a compendium of the couplets of Tulsi, covering all the seven kands or acts, laced liberally with his own compositions, to create a manual for the Dehra Dun Ramlila.


Dehra Dun Guru jahan rama, tahan ye das kare vigrama,

Tuliskirit se leyi chaupai, kuch nij budhi kahi banai.


Dehra Dun, where the Guru settled, this humble servant also came to live and work,

Borrowed from Tulsi's quatrain verse and composed the rest through his own intelligence.


This is how the poet describes and commences his compositions, each retaining a metre of four syllables in the tradition of the Ramcharitmanas composed by the saint poet Tulsidas. Each verse can be identified by the number of syllables, usually counted as 16/16, divided by a value of one in case of the hrasva, the short vowel, and two in the case of the dirgha, the long vowel.


But Tulsi's Ramcharitmanas is perhaps only the generating kernel of the Shivaji Samiti Ramlila. To use Schechner's expression, used in terms of the Ramnagar Ramlila, it is ‘like a tree springing from a great tap root, the branches are spread far and wide.’ What sets this Ramlila apart is that all the compositions are raga-based, with a raga or ragini prescribed for each rendition. It was held in the forecourt of the Mataon ki Samadhi, or the cenotaphs of the mothers, in what must have been—the presently derelict building indicates—a fabulously painted lime and surkhi plaster structure with architecture that combined elements of the Mughal, Sikh and Pahari traditions. The building was earlier referred to simply as the Ramlila Makaan (lit. house of Ramlila). It was later named the Ramlila Bhavan, until finally the Ramlila moved out to its new home, the Shivaji Dharamshala.


The Ramlila performance would comprise compositions vocalised by actors themselves. Actors were chosen to perform specific roles not on the basis of their appearance or method, but according to their singing abilities and voice culture. The performers had to not just enact their roles but also sing, throwing their voices afar, in keeping with the demands of large audiences (and the lack of any amplification), while adhering to the high standards of classicism.


Thus, preparations for the performance would commence several months before, with the performers coming together for the readings of the quatrain verses. Once the verses had been internalised, they would be sung in the classical tradition. The artistes would be fed with milk, ghee and almonds to give them the requisite physical strength to perform. In the words of one of the erstwhile child performers, ‘The ones selected for the main roles had to really prepare themselves. We began the rubbing and massaging months in advance, not just of the stage and the props, but also the bodies of the men who would perform for the Ramlila.’ All the roles were assigned to men, who could endure seclusion, celibacy and abstinence from tobacco or alcohol in preparation of the parts they were to enact. In fact, the men who played the characters were treated as their embodiments for the period of the Ramlila. The Rama character would receive obsequious treatment and people would touch his feet the moment he stepped out of his room. Rajneesh Garg, a connoisseur who witnessed some of the grandeur as a young boy growing up in the locality, remembers how the common halwai or sweetmeat seller would abstain from tobacco during the Ramlila and magically transform into Lakshmana by night. ‘While there was intense competition to be a part of Rama's army, even the monkey roles had many claimants and it would be very difficult to find any takers to enact Ravana's henchmen,’ he reminisced.


The quality of classicism in performances of the Shivaji Samiti Ramlila improved markedly when the younger sibling of mahant Lachman Das, the chief functionary of the sect, mahant Gyan Das, was sent to Gwalior for a 32-year stint, to imbibe the nuances of this gharana. It is believed that he led a life of seclusion, meditating upon his music for these three decades. On his return to Dehradun, he taught music to several traders, including the illustrious Lachmi Chand. The traders then took it upon themselves to carry forward the tradition of rendering the Ramayana in the Hindustani classical tradition, adopting the style and nuances of the Gwalior Gharana. A Lachman Dramatics Club was set up under his tutelage and a quadrangle was earmarked for frequent concerts. It is said that the legendary founder of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Vishnu Digamber Paluskar, once arrived in Dehradun looking for a place to rest. The tongawallah brought him to the Durbar. Here, incognito, he decided to take a dip in the talaab or sacred pond and rested under a tree. The moment he began to hum to himself, he was surrounded by a group of connoisseurs, and later, on being recognized, was granted a royal reception by Mahant Lachman Das. It is believed that he charged a fee of Rs 4000 every time he sang for the mahants, a princely sum but an honorarium happily granted.


As in most Ramlila performances, the Shivaji Samiti Ramlila commenced with a mangalacaranam, or an invocation. Then it took the audience to Ravana's pre-birth, letting the audience know of his affliction from the curse of the demon, Mahishasura. It talks of the grandeur of Ravana's kingdom, as well his excesses, laying the foundation for an earthly crisis necessitating the appearance of the divine incarnation. The next part dealt with Dashratha's court, Rama's birth and the various samskara rituals associated with it. Narad and the poet composer himself appeared as the sutradhar or the anchor narrator.


The samvads, or dialogues, were assembled and written during the turn of the century. The several appendices to the original text point towards additions made over a period of time. Thus, one can say that in the Shivaji Samiti Ramlila, the three prime ingredients were rasa, the vital element of devotion and divine experience, samvad or the dialogue, and the classical rendition.


In the narrative text, Vishwamitra's arrival changes the course of the lives of the two princes, Rama and Lakshmana, and the next part deals with their adventures in the forests with their guru. At times when rituals like sandhya lila or the evening worship are to be depicted on stage, the instructions prescribe the performance of the complete ritual. In several episodes, the playwright has himself prescribed the ragas in which the compositions need to be sung. It is specified in the text that the performer, indeed, must devote attention to the chaupai paksh, or the rendition of the quatrain verse, connecting with the audience through the flow of rasa or the divine element, while they are engrossed in the visuality and orality of the performance. Most old timers that the researcher spoke to vouched for the flow of this rasa, the vital element that accounted for the very high emotive quotient of the performance. Equally significant to the performance was the sangeet paksh or the musicality of the performance. The renditions by the actors had to adhere to the standards of classicism imposed by the ragas. These two elements combined to universalise and make enduring the appeal of the Shivaji Samiti Ramlila.


Returning to the narrative, another significant chapter is the vivah lila or the wedding episode, where Ravana and other kings compete unsuccessfully against Rama to lift and string Parashurama's bow in order to win Sita's hand in marriage.


The local interpretation of the myth was that Janaka considered a matrimonial alliance with Ayodhya below the dignity of his clan's social station. While Rama and Lakshmana awaited their Guru Vishwamitra's assent before they could try their hand at the bow, Janaka despaired that none in the assembly would prove capable of winning his daughter's hand. The narrative, even though not the most emotive part of the Ramlila, evokes an abiding passionate adherence to tradition. The sthayi or refrain of the composition, in Raga Bihag, goes like this:


Sur ki sadhana kare jo

Rag thath ke bhed pehchane

Sab guni jan ko rijhave...

pa, ma (tivra), ga, ma (shuddha), ga, re, saa


The one who can serve and perform penance with music

The one who understands the depth of raga and is a preceptor

(Only) the one who can please the true connoisseur,

Must undertake this task.



The antara or verse goes like this:


Pratham gaavo sapta swaran ko

Aarohi Avarohi Bakhano

Tab gavo aadhar raag tum

Yaman, Bilawal, Bhairav, Bhairavi

Jo sur ki sadhana...


To begin with, sing the seven notes

Lay bare the upward and downward scales

Then only you move on to the basic ragas

Yaman, Bilawal, Bhairav, Bhairavi,

The one who can serve and transform the self with music...


At this juncture Sita, preparing for her swayamvara, sings out to her soulmates and attendants, who respond in chorus,


Sakhi sab ho jaao taiyar

Siya hum pehle se taiyar


Soulmates, please do prepare yourselves

Sita, we are already ready


Lakshmana, the volatile one, miffed at the taunt from Janaka that none could tackle the challenge of the bow, comes forward to address his brother, and seeks his permission to string Parashurama's bow. To this, Rama responds:


Bhaiya mere, kahoon mein tumhe samjha ke

Di hi nahin guru agya hum ko

Mano vacan hamare, bhaiya mere

O! Lakshman, kahoon mein tumhe samjha ke


My brother, I tell you, and explain

The guru has not permitted us to lift the bow yet

Please accept my word, my brother

O! Lakshmana, I tell you, and explain...


(Here, both Lakshmana and Rama address each other as bhaiya, or brother. And yet, each time one addresses the other, the term is uttered with a different intonation, clearly bringing out the feelings and general emotive state of each. Veteran performers state that it took years to master this subtle nuance.)


When Janaka complains that there is none in the assembly capable of even moving the bow, Lakshmana once again flares up (still with Bihag):


Janak ne kya samajh kar, vacan aisa uchara hai

Sahan mujh se nahin hota, baan jo mukh se maara hai

Utha kar chaar ungli se karo brahmand mein phenkoo

Banaa hain is ke sau tukde yahi man mein vicara hai

Janak ne kya samajh kar, vacan aisa ucara hai?


What does Janak have in mind to hurl such an insult

I cannot bear the arrows (barbs) launched by his tongue

Use your four fingers to lift the bow and throw it into space

I have a mind to break it into a hundred smithereens


What does Janak have in mind to hurl such an insult?


At this Rama, ever the pacifier, says:


Janak ne kasht se Bhaiya, vacan aisa nikala hai

Sahan karna tumhe Lakshman

Sahan karna tumhen Lakshman

Utha nahin chaap jab pyare

Janak ke dukh hua man mein

Nikal gayi baat jab mukh se

Sahan karna tumhen bhaiya


Dhanush ye tripurari kaa, samajh wo bhool mein tum Lakshman

daya jis par karien Shankar,

sahan karna tumhen Lakshman, vacan aisa nikala hai...


Janak is overcome with troubles, and that makes him say such a thing

Please bear with his words

Since no one could lift the bow

Janak's heart welled up with sorrow

He could not stop himself from uttering such a thing,

Please bear with his words


This is the bow of Tripurari (Shiva), do not think of it as ordinary

Only one who receives Shiva's grace (can move it)

Please bear with his words, the things that he said in his troubles...



Once the bow is lifted and shattered by Rama and Parashuram is furious that an unknown young man has strung his bow, the narrative enters a romantic and even secular mode with verses in the manner of Urdu couplets thrown in, reminiscent of Parsi theatre. For instance:


Jitne baithe rajvanshi yeh kisi se na utha,

Ho gayi mujhse khataa, gaya toot karun kya?

Weh to chutey hi, chutey dhanu toot gaya...

Weh to chutey hi, chutey dhanu toot gaya.


Amongst the royalty seated here, none could lift Shiva's bow,

I made a mistake, it just broke apart, I couldn't help it?

The bow was shattered the moment I touched it, the moment I touched it...

The bow was shattered the moment I touched it, the moment I touched it...


The text of Ramlila (Aale 1939:43) that is composed in the form of a manual for hosting the event year after year, clearly prescribes that wherever the performance is happening, the wedding rituals performed on stage should be adapted to the specific time and place. While a cast of 22 are listed as representing Sita's clan, 39 represent Rama's family, in the staging of the wedding celebrations. The text pays special attention to Rama as the principal character. It is specified that the depiction of Rama while walking must be accompanied by the background score in raga Pahadi Jhinjhoti. The beat is described as ‘bade gaane wale ki chaal keharwa,’ or, in other words, the eight-beat pattern of two equal divisions, as employed in the pure classical tradition. As against this, Sita's movement is the ragini Chaal Dhrupad.


The wedding sequence follows the Ayodhya episode where the stepmother ensures Rama's exile in order to ensure her own son's ascension. As Rama leaves for the forest, he encounters the boatman Kewat. Usually depicted in Ramlila as a dialogue between the boatman and Rama, where Lakshmana and Sita also join in the singing the chorus (Aale 1939:84):


Rama: Suno tum tarni khewan haar

Sita: Hamein jaana hai Saryu paar

Rama: Begi nayya lao bhaiya

Lakshmana: Jaana hai us paar

Nishad (Kewat): Mere manu kachu soch vichar, Prabhu tum jeevan ke adhaar

Sita: Hamein jaana hai us paar...


Rama: Listen, the one who takes us across (alluding also to the ultimate boatman, God, Who enables one to cross the Vaitarani, the river crossing which one is freed from the unending cycle of birth and death).   

Sita: We need to go across the Sarayu River...

Rama: Please get the boat afloat, my brother.

Lakshmana: We need to go across...

Boatman: But, a few thoughts cross my mind, Lord, you are the basis of all life

Sita: We need to go across...


After the pathos of a family torn apart, depicted in various episodes of all Ramlilas, the storyline proceeds along predictable lines. It is remarkable that over the centuries the Ramlila has endured a narrative that has not been altered or violated in letter or spirit. I would attribute this to the universal appeal of the Ramayana. In a society that is hierarchical and fragmented on several scales including caste and social station, the epic touches upon concerns of all sections, including dalits and women, albeit at times from a top-down or high-caste perspective. One of the episodes that reflects this inclusiveness is the Sabari and Rama episode, reproduced in the Shivaji Samiti Ramlila as a simple and emotive scene.


With Sunderkand, the narrative arrives at the significant fifth chapter of the Ramlila. Here, the narrator springs another surprise in the form of dialogues between the demon king Ravana and his estranged brother Vibhishana. The dialogue is presented in the ghazal, the form used by Urdu love poetry. For instance, Vibhishana challenges his haughty sibling thus:


Tera abhiman sab jata rahega,

Bahut tu man mein pachtata rahega.


Na pachtane se niklega phir kuch kaam,

Jab haath se sab jaata rahega.


Kabhi isse na mitha phal milega,

naye dukh roz tu paata rahega.


Hamein tha kaam samjhane se bhrata,

Kiye ki tu sazaa paata rahega


Your false pride will lead to your downfall,

You shall have to repent a lot.


Repentance shall offer no solution,

Then gradually you shall lose everything.


Such actions are never fruitful,

You shall experience new sorrows everyday.


My duty it was to warn you, O brother,

As you sow, so shall you reap.



Ravana retorts:


Aise bhai ki mujhko zaroorat nahin, teri kartoot ka ab pataa ho gaya,

Mera tera talluq jo tha behaya, bas samajh aaj se muqnata ho gaya,


Lanka se phauran chala ja abhi der ki to samajh le bura ho gaya,

Kuldrohi na mujhko dikhana shakal mera dushman to ab barmala ho gaya.


I do not need a brother like you, now I know who is the one who has betrayed me,

O shameless man, my brother, the relationship we shared once, you can take it has ended.


Quit Lanka at once, if you delay you shall face my wrath,

Betrayer of the race, do not show me your face, for now we are sworn enemies.



After another response from Vibhishana, also laced with Urdu idioms and expressions, the narrative again reverts to quatrain verse.


The Shivaji Samiti Ramlila thus appeared in Pandava country as a representation of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, an expression of the syncretistic coming together of several artistic streams in the valley of Dehradun. In fact, gatka or martial arts’ performers led the Ramlila processions, in the Sikh processional tradition; following them were the Hindu akharas, with the performers in costume trailing them.


By the 1930s, so popular had the Ramlila become that it had to be shifted out of the Mataon ki Samadhi courtyard to a more commodious venue in the Shivaji Dharamshala. With the partition of the country in 1947, however, several changes occurred. The city of Dehradun saw an unprecedented influx of traders and businessmen from the frontier regions of what was now Pakistan, coming and settling in the valley. They brought with them their own Ramlila traditions, which differed from the classicism demanded by the traditional form, however contemporary and flashy in its own way. The new form now appropriated the performance space of the Mataon ki Samadhi, vacated by the Shivaji Samiti Ramlila.


At this juncture, the performative tradition of the traditional Ramlila, true to its folk nature, was forced to borrow from various sources, including Hindi cinema, though it remained conscious of retaining its classicism. This openness also, to an extent, proved to be its undoing. In 1942, in the early days of the talkies in the valley, the film Bharat Milap was released, in which the song signifying Bharata's agony as he went out in search of his step-brother who had been exiled on account of Bharat's own mother's ambition for him, became quite a rage and requests began to pour in to incorporate the song into the repertoire of the Ramlila. The song was titled, 'Bata do Ram gaye kis ore'. In this Shahu Modak film, Shankar Rao Vyas composed the music. Recalls Kishori Lal, one of the aspiring singers at the time, ‘When demands came that the song be included in the repertoire, the composers refused to incorporate a film song. When the audience and the patrons persisted, the composers sat down to recompose the song. The lyrics were set to a different raga in a single sitting as the current raga and beat were considered more perhaps as crooning rather than the prevalent full-throated singing. The recomposed song indeed exuded more rasa than the original and went on to become a highlight of the entire Ramlila.’


Gradually, the new Ramlila of the refugee settlers, that employed gimmicks like a flying Hanumana and the burning of huge effigies of Ravana and his cohorts in the more expansive Parade Ground, overtook the more nuanced and sedate tradition. This is not to say that the traditional Ramlila was not spectacular enough. In its efforts to create the requisite aesthetics and pageantry, a bridge would be constructed over the Talaab, the sacred pond of the Durbar. This was done at the behest of Lala Shankar Lal, a wealthy patron. As the Durbar administration became insensitive to the need for patronage, this added to the woes of the performers. Many performers associated with the Ramlila, however, attribute the discontinuation of the tradition to the rationalism of modernity. Confided one of the performers, 'The Shivaji Samiti Ramlila was a grand pageant. The Mahant would himself come and inaugurate it. Traditions were honoured. Then came in “education”. The traditions began to be disrespected. For instance, the dates of the performance itself were shifted. They decided to begin the Ramlila in the shradh on the amavas. Such was the inauspiciousness caused that the tradition itself could not survive.' With little support, the tradition gradually waned.


With the disappearance of the traditional Shivaji Samiti Ramlila, a unique tradition has been lost. Is there merit in making efforts towards its revival? Is there a need for such an attempt? When we confront these questions, it is important to consider the rasa aspect of the traditional Ramlila in some detail. It is through the Ramlila that information concerning values, history (both mythic and conceptual), hierarchy and respect for the classical traditions was transmitted. People began attending the Ramlila as infants and absorbed the nuances of the tradition throughout their formative years.


According to Schechner, in its details, the Ramlila combines narrative themes from both the Iliad (the war) and the Odyssey (the wanderings). It has, in several ways, deeply impacted the popular Indian consciousness. This presence is, according to Sankalia (Schechner 1973), renewed and enhanced by the myriad Ramlilas performed, generating a moral-mythical consciousness. The experience of being a part of the Ramlila, as a performer, backstage assistant, patron or member of the audience leads to a panoramic tour of India's mythical landscape. For the performers, they literally grow into their roles to the extent that their physical being began to reflect their Ramlila identities, as it did for the sweet maker who turned into Lakshmana every evening of the performance. Names like Master Tarachand, an accomplished singer in his own right, Mangal the popular tabla player from Muzaffarnagar, and Hazari the choreographer pop up in animated conversations and light up the eyes of the veterans who have witnessed or participated in the Ramlila. In fact, one can trace the progression of the tradition from Mahant Gyan Das to Master Kishori Lal to Master Tarachand and then Kaushik-ji, all legends of their time who devoted their lives to this theatrical tradition. Recalls one of the veterans of the Shivaji Ramlila, ‘Under Master Kishori Lal, the local government school became a great centre for classical music learning. Master Kishori Lal would himself teach and charge a monthly fee of Rs 200, a princely sum. Such was his ability that when Srikrishna Narayan Ratanjankar (foremost disciple of Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande and Faiyaz Khan), at the time the principal of the nationally respected Bhatkhande Sangeet Sansthan, came to test the students, he commented that even though the students had not been taught according to the syllabus, their virtuosity was commendable. He was forced to pass all the students!’ In fact, the roles essayed by the artistes and their musical training began to permeate their beings and defined their ordinary actuality.


The Shivaji Samiti Ramlila, therefore, presents to us an incredibly complicated aesthetics that also helped sustain the socialisation and self-actualisation needs of a people. The Ramlila provided a point where, as denoted by Redfield (1972), the 'Great' and the 'Little' traditions co-mingled to create an otherworldly environment for the days of the performance. It transfigured ordinariness into the realm of the divine, in fact creating its own model of the universe. Alf Hiltebeitel (2001) makes a point about the need to rethink the epics by stating that while Western scholarship intends to critique the epics from their own standards established by academia (the ‘tools of lower and higher criticism’), the Indian mind hankers for historical credibility in attempting to find archaeological evidence. These two ideas, though easy to combine, miss the point when we begin to look for meaning in the epics. Instead, considering the epics as ‘work in progress’, Hiltebeitel makes a case for developing an understanding of ‘how it does what it does.’


A performance that exudes such immense diversity and power, of such deep-rooted social import, that has developed its own aesthetics with a judicious combination of the folk, the classical and the modern, is worthy of preservation. From the standpoint of the employment of the myth for audience participation, political allusion, performance skill and involvement, the Shivaji Samiti's Ramlila was an unmatched form and deserves efforts towards its revitalisation. Fortunately, the text is still available and so is the manual of the form. A little organisational and financial capacity building can initiate a revival of an art form that has passed into oblivion.




Aale, Vaidya Narayan Singh. 1939. Ramlila Script. 14th Edition. Dehradun: Jugal Kishore Press.


Bhalla, Sarup Das. 1776. 'Mahima Prakash'. Manuscript.


Chandola, Anoop. 1977. Folk Drumming in the Himalayas: A Linguistic Approach to Music. New York: AMS Press.


Dobhal, S.C. 2001. A Brief History of Shri Guru Ram Rai Darbar Sahib. Dehradun: Saraswati Press.


Durkheim, Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press.


Hiltebeitel, Alf. 2001. Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader's Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Joshi, V. ed. 1966. Lala Lajpat Rai Writings and Speeches, vol. 1, 1888–1919. Delhi: University Publishers.


Lal, Mukandi Barrister. 1968. Garhwal Painting. New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India.


Nautiyal, Kanti Prasad, B.M.  Khanduri, and Vinod Nautiyal. 1997. Him Kanti: Archaeology, Art and History. Delhi: Book India Publishing Company.


Redfield, Robert. 1972. When a Great Tradition Modernizes. London: Pall Mall Press.


Sankalia, H. D. 1973. Ramayana: Myth or Reality? New Delhi: People's Publishing House.


Sax, William S. 2002. Dancing the Self: Personhood and Performance in the Pandav Lila of Garhwal. New York: Oxford University Press.


Schechner, Richard 1983. Performative Circumstances from the Avante Garde to Ramlila. Calcutta: Seagull Books.


———. 2005. A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology edited by  Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese, 235–39. Oxon: Routledge.