Ramlila refers to a ritual tradition of religious tableaux or short plays performed in northern India in September and October during the birthday festival of Prince Rama, the hero of the Ramayana epic and an avatar of God Vishnu. The highlights of Rama’s life can be enacted as robust village theatre or as sketchy scenes performed by boy actors assisted by adult men. The most lavish ramlila takes place in Varanasi and its outskirts, where the scenes are divided to cover one month and they are enacted in various locations appropriate to the content of the particular scene.
The ramlila tradition is inseparable from the famous Hindi version of the Ramayana, the Ramacharitmanas, by the poet Tulsidas (1523–1623). He was a devotee of Rama; he was a philosopher and a composer, and has been regarded as an incarnation of Valmiki, the author of the Sanskrit Ramayana.
Tulsidas’ vernacular Ramayana was strongly opposed by learned Brahmans. However, it gained enormous popularity, particularly in North India. Deeply inspired by Valmiki’s Ramayana, he created his own version, which, in some details, slightly differs from the original one. Even during Tulsidas’ time, the reciting of Ramayana was regarded as an act of devotion.
After Tulsidas’ death in 1623, his followers enacted the Ramacharitmanas during the Rama festival. The tradition spread to other parts of the region, and gradually the originally five-day performance grew into a lavish pageant lasting up to one month.
The main characters, such as Rama, Sita, and Laksmana are generally played by pre-adolescent boys under fourteen, who come from Brahman families. They must undergo a period of fasting and purification in a temple before the ramlila.
For the performance, the boys’ hands and feet are layered with with sandalwood paste and their faces are covered with heavy make-up. Floral motifs decorated with glittering sequins are painted on their chins. They wear gilded crowns and an abundance of flower garlands around their necks. In fact, they are just like live versions of the religious imagery that is characteristic of the region.
Many characters, such as Hanuman and Ravana, are played by adult men wearing masks. In street performances the masks are often made of papier maché, while in more grandiose spectacles the huge masks, for example Hanuman’s mask, are made of metal.
The nucleus of the whole pageant is the recitation of Tulsidas’ Ramayana. It is done by a chorus, the Ramayanis, who accompany themselves with small cymbals. The Ramayanis are seated on the ground in a kind of monkey position. They are led by one or several vyases, chorus leaders and masters of the ceremony. They also prompt and support the boy actors by openly reading their lines, which the child actors then loudly, almost shouting, repeat in an extremely stylised and slow manner.
Almost every street in Varanasi has its own ramlila committee. The simplest ramlilas are erected in the streets. The road serves as the acting area and the good characters, i.e. Prince Rama and his army, occupy one side of the road and the evil characters, i.e. the Demon King Ravana and his army, the other. Simple costumes and papier maché masks are used.
Bigger ramlila spectacles employ several stages, on which different sequences of the Ramayana are enacted simultaneously. In fact, in Varanasi several ramlilas may be performed at the same time. They are, however, started on different days so that the spectators may criss-cross between various performances according to their taste.
The most spectacular of all ramlilas is, without doubt, the 30-day mega-performance in Varanasi. Every day a new episode is shown in a particular location appropriate to the episode of the day. It can take place near the river, in a public square, in a forest etc.
In certain episodes, particularly those enacting Rama’s and Sita’s wedding and Rama’s return, wealthy families of the city display their heirloom jewellery as part of the scenes in the procession. The masks are huge, and Hanuman’s copper mask weighs several kilograms.
The climax of this ramlila is the scene of Rama’s return and reunion with his brothers. As many as 300 000 spectators shout their praise and throw flowers on the platform on which Rama embraces his brothers. The action is frozen into a still tableau, which serves as a kind of temporary altar for the ecstatically worshipping crowds of pilgrims.
The maharaja of Varanasi then arrives on his elephant as the representative of God Shiva to meet Rama, the avatar of the other main Hindu god, Vishnu. This one-month devotional spectacle ends with the burning of the huge, firecracker-filled cardboard effigies of Ravana and Kumbakarna to seal the final victory of good over evil.
The above forms of ramlila bear all the marks of bhakti-related devotional rituals. There are, however, more secularised forms of ramlila. They may be performed in villages and towns, in temporary tents or theatre halls on a Western-influenced proscenium stage.
The style of the performances can be that of melodramatic folk theatre influenced by Indian movies. They can involve dance sequences in various Indian classical and semi-classical styles or even in the glittering style of Bollywood musicals. Although they still serve as reminders of Rama’s virtues and victory, they are more entertaining in character than the devotional ramlilas.