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Whether it is a pesky 11-year-old Dashrath struggling to maintain his flowing beard during the enactment of the Ramayana in a street Ramlila, or handsome young artistes enacting Rama and Sita on a professional stage, the feeling is the same for the viewers.

They know the story of Sita and Ram by heart, but every year they wait with bated breath for yet another performance of the Ramayana in performances across the country, and specially in northern India. It is as if they are seeing it for the first time. In the actors they see the epic come alive; the actors, too, do not remain untouched by the fervent chants of the audience every now and then, ‘Bol Siyapati Ram ki Jai’ (Hail Sita’s husband Rama’)

`Fun'tastic Ramlila, Dandiya, Jatra
`Fun’tastic Ramlila, Dandiya, Jatra [Illustration by Anup Singh]

In Gujarat, Dussehra is unthinkable without the hugely popular and highly energetic men’s folk dance of the Dandiya-ras or the Garba by women. And, in West Bengal or any Bengali-locality in India celebrating Durga Puja, life is incomplete without the melodrama of the Jatra folk theatre.

Fun’tastic world of Ramlila

These performances enable people to get together and feel a sense of community, though each individual may see something different in them. After all, epics like the Ramayana are full of role models for humans – the ideal ruler, the ideal son, the ideal husband or wife. And depending on who the viewers are and what their situation is, they see these performances differently. Plays in the Jatra form also touch upon everyday values and situations.

Few traditional performances match the popularity of the Ramlilas though, which are a dramatised depiction of events in the life of Rama. These trace their origins to more than 300 years ago when the Hindi poet Tulsidas dramatised certain portions of his Ramcharitmanas and presented them at Banaras (Varanasi).

Different areas of the city of Banaras were named after places in the epic Ramayana and Ramlila plays were enacted there over several nights. The presentation culminated on Dusshera with the burning of the effigies of Ravana and his relatives.

It continues to be a colourful affair to this day in Banaras, whose neighbourhoods are choc-a-bloc with Ramlilas. The performances go on at their own pace: in one locality Rama and Sita are getting married; in another, Sita is being abducted; and in yet another, Rama’s forces are fighting Ravana.

The Mother of all Ramlilas – in Banaras

By far the most spectacular and popular Ramlila in India is held at Ramnagar on the bank of the Ganga, near Banaras. Enacted over a period of 30 days, this Ramlila is a moving performance – literally. If the action moves from a palace to a jungle, the acting area changes too, and the audiences also move with the performance.

Different scenes are enacted at different places, which in turn are associated with the actual locales of Ramayana. The Ramlila performance becomes a moveable feast for the eyes!

From Dandiya ras to Disco Dandiya

Or take the Dandiya ras and Garba in Gujarat, whose popularity is growing day by day. The Dandiya had its origins in the Limbdi region of the state, and was a dance based on the Ramayana, performed only by men. Dressed in flounced jackets, they beat short lacquered sticks as they quickstep in a whirling circle to the beat of drums, songs and cymbals.

Today the Dandiya is extremely popular among all Gujaratis, and is also catching up among other Indians, particularly young Indians ( very few festivals give boys and girls the opportunity to mix freely and dance the way Dandiya does).

As a result, we now have Disco-Dandiya, with the city-bred hip set swinging to the beat of the music with the same abandon as they do to trance or techno music, the latest fads in western music.

While the Dandiya-Ras has a relatively recent origin, the Garba, danced by women, dates much further back in time. Besides Navaratri, the Garba is also danced during the Holi and Basant Panchami festivals. Joyful songs and light, graceful, circular movements are typical of the Garba, which celebrates the Krishna theme. It is the favourite dance at community cultural gatherings.

The Jatra of Bengal

Unlike the Dandiya-ras or the Ramlila, which are closely linked with the festivals that they are performed in, the Jatra, Bengal’s most popular form of theatre, is not historically linked with the Durga Puja. And that is why it can be performed anytime and not just during the Puja.

Still, the Puja is the one time when interest in this performing art peaks among people, and one finds the state’s most famous Jatra troupes engaged in frantic tours across the state and outside.

The Jatra had its origin in Vaishanava musical plays based on the Krishna theme introduced in Bengal by the 16th century Bhakti saint, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Today however, Jatras rarely cover the religious aspect, and deal with historical, social and political themes, mostly contemporary.

A Jatra performance is marked by loud and dramatic acting, high-pitched dialogue delivery, much dancing and singing, glittering music and rich music. All the ingredients of popular films!