Permissions, tests, masks, checks: How a Ramlila overcame the odds

The Ramayana is the story of the victory of good over evil. When the capital’s much-celebrated Ramlila “SHRI RAM,” a dance- drama, opened on Saturday , the team of artistes at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK), which organises the annual cultural extravaganza, also rejoiced at the victory of their optimism over the all-pervading pessimism caused by the coronavirus disease pandemic. After all, they managed to stage the spectacular ballet based on the life of Lord Ram at a time when many Ramlilas across the city have either been cancelled or truncated for lack of time to make preparations, restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the viral disease, and delayed official permissions.

Putting together the dance-drama — a unique fusion of many forms of Indian classical music and folk dances, martial and acrobatic arts, masks and make-up styles — which requires months of preparation, was a formidable challenge when pandemic is raging. Shobha Deepak Singh, who has directed this unique version of the Ramlila for almost five decades, says she was determined to try and ensure that there was no break in the annual event, first staged in 1957 under the stewardship of her mother Sumitra Charat Ram.

The SBKK’s Ramlila has, over the years, seen the participation of some the biggest names in classical music and dance, and has figured prominently on the capital’s cultural calendar.

“ The only thing that worried me was getting the permissions on time. But we wanted to start rehearsals, and so each of our 60 artists and technicians underwent a corona test and everyone tested negative and the rehearsals got underway in August,” said Singh, sitting in her office, decorated with Indian artefacts and artworks.

“Even though everyone tested negative for the coronavirus disease, we started rehearsals in small batches with all necessary precautions. There were temperature checks everyday and when in the green room, everyone wore masks. We put up all artists in the hostel within the campus and every one underwent a test every 15th day,” said Shashidharan Nair, the choreographer of the presentation for the past 25 years.

Among those who were not sure if they will be able to perform in front of a live audience was Raj Kumar Sharma, who has played Ram for the past two decades now. The coronavirus was capable of springing a nasty surprise anytime.

“ Even as we rehearsed, most artists were not sure that eventually the event will be staged, pandemic was far from abating, and even by late September the permission to hold the event was still awaited, ” says Sharma, sitting in front of a large mirror in the green room with large table mirrors. Costumes, masks, crowns, bows and arrows hang on the wall.

Singh came to the rehearsals every day to ensure that new news costumes and scenes that she had introduced this year came through well. For the uninitiated, the SBKK Ramlila is also pageantry of regal costumes and jewellery, a lot of which is inspired by the works of painter Raja Ravi Verma.

“I have been constantly experimenting with music, make-up, sets, lights, costumes, jewellery and technology so that our production has something fresh to offer to the audiences,” says Singh, who believes that technology and tradition co-exist. Last year, she introduced multiple LED screens on the open-air stage to display many scenes such as Hanuman bringing the Sanjeevani Booti; Ram and his army crossing the sea into Lanka over floating stones – which gave the presentation a feel of a 3-D visual extravaganza.

She was satisfied with the preparations. In mid- September,. it was time for all to undergo another coronavirus test.

This time, the coronavirus did spring a nasty surprise. Singh tested positive. Everyone else, thankfully , tested negative.

Many artistes thought it was curtains for the show as she shifted to a hospital in Gurgaon. “ Our spirits sank. But she kept telling us from hospital to keep the rehearsal on, to be ready to stage the Ramlila even if we got the permission last day. The rehearsal went on in her absence,” says Nair.

Singh returned after two weeks to a cheering welcome by the artistes. But the permission to hold the Ramlila had not yet come. Singh activated her plan B – between October 10 and 12 , the Ramlila was recorded to be screened on YouTube in case the live event had to be cancelled at the last moment.

But, finally, the government gave its go-ahead, with riders, for the event. And the stage was set for the inauguration of the 64th edition of the SBKK’s Ramlila. Arrangements were made for seating about 100 people for reasons of social- distancing, unlike in the past when about 600 could see the Ramlila every day.

On Saturday, it was 6 pm, half an hour before the show. Singh was inside the green room of women’s artistes, having a word with Madhavi Rastogi, who is playing Sita. Rastogi is busy adjusting her jewellery, her fellow artists lending a helping hand. There are also other young women artistes playing female characters—Kaikayee , Yaraka, Manthara—touching up their lips, faces, eyes, all finally excited to perform before the live audience many of whom, wearing masks, have already taken the seats placed at quite a distance from each other. “ I love playing Sita, which is quite an emotional roller coaster ride for me; but what saddens me is the fact that women continue to face ordeal by fire to prove themselves every day, ” says Rastogi.

Singh says that for her, the Ramanaya is essentially a saga of devotion, loyalty, endearing family relationships, and respect for elders. “ So, we have always tried to make our version of Ramlila entertaining and enlightening. I have studied Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas deeply over the last 50 years, and the most important lesson I have drawn is that to err is human, to forgive divine,” she says.

It is 6.30 in the evening, and the open-air stage at SBKK has come alive. The inaugural show has begun as scheduled.

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