Miracle Plays of Mathura - Ramlila, Part 2


Ram and Lakshmana meet Hanuman, Sugriva
and Jambavan to Discuss Battling Ravana

Aug 07, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) — Reprise of a 2007 series on the Miracle Plays of Mathura.

There is no need to retell here the familiar narratives which the Ramlila dramatizes. With a few exceptions of the kind just mentioned, they are the stories told by Tulsidas and may be read in various translated works. The scope and content of the whole of a city's observances may be seen in the translation of Mathura's day-by-day calendar, shown below. It will be noticed in that calendar that the presentations do not consist of only dramas.

On the opening day and on the final day, important rituals are also performed. On numerous occasions throughout the season, pageants and processions - spectacles rather than dramas - are held in the streets and other public places. For instance, the gods go in procession to plead with Brahma for help against the evil power of Ravana. Rama and the demoness Taraka lead their respective adherents through the streets and lock forces in decisive combat.

When Rama is to be married to Sita, he travels to her parental home in a colorful wedding procession like that of mortal bridegrooms. Later, Rama, Sita and Lakshmana walk barefoot to the edge of the city on the sad road to exile, amidst the genuine tears of many who line the streets. The citizens pour forth in a body to visit them at Citrakut, which is identified for the time being with a certain spot in the suburbs. And when all the trials of the heroic family are finished, the victorious Rama returns to meet his brother Bharata, traveling in triumphal procession with his monkey friends and allies.

Ramlila Spectacle at Benares (Ramnagar)
Gouache, c.1835-40
[ Click for larger version ]

The last and greatest of these vast open-air spectacles is the Ravanvadh, the great pageant of the slaying of Rama's demon enemy. In the Mathura festivities, this spectacle was massively and crudely presented under the open sky on the afternoon of the Vijayadasai day, before a crowd equal in number to the entire population of the city. The arena was a sunken field at the edge of town, surrounded by banks and hillocks from which a hundred thousand people looked on. At one end of the field, colossal paper effigies of Ravana and his brother Kumbhakarna (Kumbhkaran) manned the flimsy walls of a paper 'fortress' of Lanka. There was some semblance of mute drama as Rama and his monkey cohorts swarmed on the scene and prepared to attack. Two carriages bearing impersonators of Rama and Ravana circled round and round in lively imitation of the tactical gyrations of the chariots of the two champions in combat. A great shout went up as Ravana was struck down. The ebullient crowd swarmed through the lines of police, the walls of Lanka were torn to tatters, and the images of the demons went up in flames.

On the evening of the day of the Ravanvah pageant, the conflict which had been shown roughly in the afternoon was given serious dramatic rendering on the Mathura Ramlila troupe's principal covered stage. In all Ramlilas of the author's experience, there existed this fundamental distinction between the outdoor processions and pageants, on the one hand, and the less spectacular but more polished stage presentations on the other. Jvalaprasad Misra in his Hindi manual for Ramlila troupes shows that this differentiation is widely recognized:

"It is clear that the Ramlila can be of two kinds, the first on the open field, the second on a curtained stage. The lila that is performed on a stage goes on in the style of a play. …The first kind of lila takes place after a ring has been made in the open field. Only such action is performed in it as is suitable for common people to see."

In Mathura, Vrindaban, and in all the towns near and far of which the author has direct knowledge, the festival involves performances of both sorts, and in no case are those of the first kind done in dumb show. The descriptions of the Ramlila's actors as voiceless is found in writers who were not mere transient aliens but careful, settled observers whom one would expect to be aware of the existence of spoken dramas if there were any.

Narayana Sahaya Gosvami in the preface to this Sriram-lila Nataka Ramayana says that in some towns the acting of the Ramlila goes on in the manner of a play, but that "generally in the Ramlilas it is the pandits who recite the verses; the svarups are only made to sit in the guise of images." The Gosvami would not underestimate, of course, the need for the dialogue which he is publishing, but we must accept his statement about the frequency of the use of mute actors. The testimony of such well-informed persons leads us to believe that in the past (and perhaps even now) there have been many communities which attempt nothing beyond the public pageants, associating their reading of the Ramayana with these inarticulate outdoor shows. Some may even produce the smaller stage plays in pantomime.

The idea suggests itself that the pantomime may have been the original form of the Ramlila and that the stage performance with dialogue may have made its appearance only through the influence of the modern Hindi play, which was nascent in the latter half of the last century. However, we have evidence that there were speaking actors on the Ramlila stage before the first Hindu prose dramas were written.

Topinath Tivari in his recent Bharatendukalin Natak Sahitya relates the personal reminiscences of a very old man, born in 1826, who described to him the dialogue in both prose and verse which was used by the Ramlila actors of his childhood. And as we shall see, a comparison of the Ramlila with the modern play does not encourage the belief that the former if the offspring of the latter.

The modern dialogue drama has exerted a marginal influence on the Ramlila tradition, but the product has been the class of aberrant Ramlila natakas mentioned above. So we shall assume that it is the pantomimic Ramlila which is the epiphenomenon. It is probably a local simplification, the resort of communities which undertake the observances with limited resources in training, funds, interest, or energy. At any rate, the dialogue drama which prevails in the Ramlila today is not a recent development.

The Ramlila one may see today is full drama. Its dialogue is subordinated to textual recitation, it is true, but the subordination does not mean that dialogue is minor in quantity. Its dependence is functional. The recitation carries the thread of the story and thus determines the speech and action of the performers. The pandit, ever the key man in the proceedings, sings out the dohas, caupais and sorathas of the printed page in the every-recurring tunes appropriate to their meters.

If the acting is being done on a proper stage, the pandit's lectern is usually seen at its right-hand border. He and his accompanists often sit on a small detached platform which projects into the audience slightly in advance of the main stage and to its right. Frequently he uses a microphone and amplifier to make himself heard above the sometimes boisterous chatter of the crowd.

In Vrindaban, where most of the acting is done out-of-doors, the pandit seated himself on a table placed at the edge of the rectangle of dusty lawn which served as a stage. In swift-moving action scenes he sometimes descended to the sidelines and strode up and down with the tides of battle, holding his book before him and singing out the verses in a stentorian voice.

As these pandits begin their scriptural chant from one of these vantage points, the performers on the stage begin to display in bodily motion the action being narrated, and when the verses of the Ramayana have reported the words of this or that personality, the pandit pauses while on the stage the appropriate actor repeats the substance of the speech in modern Hindi prose. Sometimes the actor's utterance is a fairly literal translation of the Ramayana passage; sometimes it is a paraphrase, and sometimes a fanciful elaboration along lines which the text merely suggests or provides with a reasonable occasion.

How cantillation and dialogue are interwoven may be seen in the transcription to follow, of a sound-recording made at an actual performance. The recording was made on the Ramlila stage in Mathura. The occasion was the enactment of the Rajgaddi or coronation of Rama.

In tomorrow's segment, we will explore the exact transcription of this recording.

Mathura's Ramlila Calendar

(A partial translation of a 1949 Handbill)

Reverence to Sri Ramcandra!
'Without association with the good
There's no telling of the story of Hari;
Without that, no flight of delusion,
And without delusion's departure,
No firm love of Rama's feet.'

September 16:
With the impersonators of Janaki, Bharat, Lakshman, and Satrughna present in full dress, the wrist-cords will be tied [solemnly binding all to fulfill their respective duties until the end of the festival season]. After this, all the actors go from the front of the mosque into Pandit Kavalisinh's temple. They turn back and go into Durgacand Lane via the Central Bazaar. The drama of the wedding of Siva with Parvati. The reducing of Kamdev to ashes, etc.

September 17:
The terrible austerities of Narad. Sent by Indra, Kamdev comes with apsarases. Narad goes to Siva. Narad's conceit and his going to the Lord Vishnu. The Lord's creation of an illusory city to rid Narad of his conceit. Narad's falling in love with Visvamohani and his going to the Lord and asking for a handsome appearance, and the Lord's giving him the shape of a monkey and destroying Narad's pride. Narad's cursing the Lord. Svaytambhuvamanu's going to do austerities; his vision of the Lord. The birth of Ravan and his doing austerities. His asking a boon of Brahma and achieving universal victory.

September 18:
The procession moves from Ray Bahadur Pandit Kavalisinh's temple and goes to the Asakunda Bazaar by way of Bharatpur Gate and Tilak Gate. The going of the gods to Brahma. Then Brahma and all the hosts of god and the Earth in the form of a cow are fearful and recite the praises of Narayan. The voice from the heavens. Thereafter the procession will pass the Svamighat Mosque and end at Ray Bahadur Pandit Kavalisinh's temple.

September 19:
The celebration of the birth of Ram and his brothers will be held. The christening, the childhood play, and Ram's exhibition of his vastness. King Janak's ploughing because of a famine, and Janaki's appearing from the earth.

September 20:
The sage Visvamitra asks Dasarath the Lord of Avadh for Raghunath and Lakshman to protect a sacrifice, takes them, goes onward, and rests on the way in the ancient ashram of the Rishis. (This drama will take place in front of the Temple of Vaidya Ratna Pandit Sohanlal Pathak.) The killing of Taraka and the demons on the road. Visvamitra's performing the sacrifice, and the attack of the innumerable army of demons on the assembly of sages in order to interrupt the sacrifice. Raghunath's killing of Maric, Taraka, and the Subahu with a headless arrow. The destruction of all the demons by the arrows of lakshman. Ramcandra's going to Janakpur with Lakshman and Visvamitra. The deliverance on the way of Ahilya by the dust of Ram's feet. The bathing and worshipping in the Ganges. Arrival at Janakpur. (This drama will be held at night at the Katra also.) Taraka's procession will start from Ray Bahadur Pandit Kavalisinh's Temple, and that of Ramcandra and Visvamitra will move from the Temple of Mahadev Mathuranath at Dig Gate.

September 21:
The arrival of Ramcandra with Lakshman to see the splendor of Janakpur, and the Kanakpur ladies' talking among themselves. Janak's daughter goes with her companions to worship Parvati. At the age Visvamitra's order Raghunath with Lakshman arrives in the flower garden. Ramcandra and Janaki's sight of each other, their falling in love and exchanging of glances.

September 22:
The presence of many kings at Sita's svayamvar, and Raghunath's breaking the bow with his lotus hands. Parasuram's sudden coming in great wrath into the hall of sacrifice. The dialogue between Parasuram and Lakshman. Parasuram's going to the forest after testing and praising Ram. King Janak inquiries of Visvamitra and sends a messenger to Ayodhya. The messenger's arrival in Ayodhya, the delivery of the letter, and the joy after it is read.

September 23:
The wedding procession of King Dasarath from Ayodhya to Janakpur (from Bativali Grove via the Central Bazaar, Kaserat Bazaar, Svamighat, Tilak Gate, Bharatpur Gate, and the front of the mosque, into the enclosed market). Enactment of the wedding of Ramcandra.

September 24:
King Dasarath's preparation to anoint Ramcandra to the kingship. Mother Kaikeyi's going into the sulking-chamber on the instigation of the slave woman Manthara. The dialogue between King Dasarath and Kaikeyi. Ram is ordered to the forest.

September 25:
Ram, Janaki and Lakshman have hermit's clothing made and go in procession on foot from the enclosed market of Janakidas into the new Svamighat Bazaar in front of the shop of Lala Lallomal. The interview with the king of the Nishads. The leave-taking of Sumant. Their dialogue with Kevat at Visramghat, their sitting in the boat and disembarkation across the Ganges at Bengali-ghat. The farewell to Kevat. The Lord's going to the ashram of the Rishi Bharadvaj (in the Jairamdas temple in the Biharidas compound). The carriage procession and the performance by the inhabitants in Javaharganj. The arrival, via Bharatpur Gate, at Valmiki's ashram at the Ghee Market in Kisoriramanganj. The affectionate interview. The going from there to Citrakut via the Sahganj Gate.

September 26:
The procession of the host of Bhils will begin from the Temple of Ray Bahadur Pandit Kavalisinh and will go to the Red Gate via Svamighat, Chatta Bazaar, Tilak Gate, the police station and the Central Bazaar. Bharat will start with the inhabitants of Avadh from Govindgang. Accompanied by the procession of Bhils, Bharat will arrive at Citrakut via Chatta Bazaar, Dori Bazaar, the Central Square, and the Red Gate. The meeting and conversation between Ram and Bharat at Citrakut.

September 27:
Jayant goes in the form of a crow and pecks at the feet of Janaki. Bhagavan pierces his eye. Bhagavan goes into the ashram of the Rishis and grants interview to all. His arrival at Pancavati. Surpanakha's ribaldry with Ramcandra. Lakshman cuts off Surpanakha's nose and ears. Khar and Dushan make war on Ramcandra, and Ramcandra kills the three demons and their army. Ramcandra pursues Maric in the guise of a golden deer; Ravan comes in the dress of a holy man, steals Sita, and takes her away. Ravan's fight with Jatayu. Jatayu is wounded by Ravan. Ram's wandering the search of Sita. He meets Jatayu and performs his cremation.

September 28:
Ramcandra goes to the hermitage of Sabari. Sabari's hospitality. Kabandh's death at the hands of Bhagavan. Bhagavan meets Narad, Hanuman and Sugriv, and makes friends with them. The fight of Bali with Sugriv and the killing of Bali. Tara's mourning. The coronation of Sugriv. Lakshman goes in a rage to Kishkindha. Sugriv sends the monkeys. Hanuman goes to Lanka with a ring and tells Sita of the welfare of Ramcandra. His battle with the demons after the conversation, and his return with a bracelet.

September 29:
Ramcandra meets Vibhishan and inquires about the secret. The placing of the image of Ramesvar on the seashore and the construction of the bridge. Angad goes into the court of Ravan. The firm planting of his foot. The controversy. The attack on Lanka. Meghnad's terrible battle with Lakshman. The Sakti weapon strikes Lakshman. Ramcandra's lament. Hanuman brings the physician Sushen and the medicine. Lakshman wakes from unconsciousness. After a battle, Kumbhkaran is killed.

September 30:
Lakshman's terrible battle with Meghnad. Meghnad is killed. Sulocana goes to Ramcandra to recover Meghnad's head, and becomes a sati.

October 1:
Ahiravan kidnaps Ramcandra and takes him to Patal. Hanuman bring shim back after killing that rascal. Ravan's grim fight with Ramcandra. The killing of Ravan. Janaki's meeting with the king. Vibhishan's enthronement.

October 2:
The procession of Ramcandra will start from Citrakut and will come to the Central Bazaar via Sahganj Gate and the Red Gate. The procession of Bharat will start from Govindganj, and the meeting with Bharat will take place in the Central Square. They will then go to the compound of Lala Janakidas by way of Svamighat, the Chatta Bazaar, Tilak Gate and the Ghee Market.

October 3:
The coronation of Ram. The reciting of praises by the [personified] Vedas. The farewell to Sugriv and the other monkeys. Ram's sermon on the duty of a king to his subjects.

October 4:
The Ramlila's benediction and oblation ceremonies, etc.

Source: 'The Miracles Plays of Mathura' by Norvin Hein


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