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The ‘ustad’. 

(Photo courtesy: Akash Joshi)

A Photo Story From Bageshwar, Uttarakhand: Not Just Ram’s Lila 

The Ramlilas in Kumaon Uttarakhand are peculiar for their musicality, elaborate costumes and months of taleem.

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5 min read

An octogenarian ‘ustad’ sat at the harmonium, giving cues to a group of girls in front of him. The girls nudge each other, casting furious glances at the boys who don’t miss a chance to poke fun at them singing.

A young man sits at the tabla, his fingers landing each beat deftly and syncing in perfect harmony with the harmonium keys. Huddled in another corner is a group of teenage boys. They fiddle with the props, playfully enacting scenes from the Ramayana. One of them turns out to be Sita.

The staging of the Ramlila in Bageshwar is only two weeks away.

Such is the landscape of the room where the ‘taleem’ (rehearsal) for the Ramlila performance in Bageshwar is in progress. Located approximately 75 kilometers from Almora in Kumaon Uttarakhand, Bageshwar is a valley town situated at the confluence of three rivers – the Sarju, the Gomati and the mythical Saraswati, the prayag of the Himalayas.

The Ramlila performances in Kumaon Uttarakhand are a big affair, peculiar for their distinctly musical nature, elaborate costumes and several months of taleem. “Humare yahan sab contribute karte hain (everybody contributes here)”, says Manoj Pandey, the ‘adhyaksh’ (president) of the Ramlila Committee in Bageshwar.

Ten-year-old school boys, 22-year-old college president, 45-year-old shopkeeper -- all are active participants in this effort, in whatever capacity. However, all the roles in this week-long saga are played by men. The only female presence at the taleem are the chorus girls. They have duel responsibilities – performing the auspicious ‘Ganesh Vandana’ each night and accompanying a to-be wed Sita on the day of her swayamvar.

Manoj, who essays the role of Ravan’s sister Shurpanakha, has agreed to take me to see the backstage preparations. He has been involved in the Ramlila for the past eleven years and has played Shurpanakha, Kaushalya (Ram’s mother) and Mandodari (Ravan’s wife) – sometimes all of them in the same year.

News of a baagh (tiger) doing the rounds in the town at night, especially close to the Numaish Khet, had spread even before the Ramlila began. The Numaish Khet is the dedicated venue for the Ramlila. That is why the audience has thinned this year, the president of the committee tells me.

Apart from those with a part to play in the story on stage, a group of middle-aged men is always to be found. They could be asked to play anything – from King Janak’s dwarpal (King Janak’s doormen) to Ravan’s sidekicks when he marches into Sita’s swayamvar. The only conditions they need to fulfil is that they should be able to tap their feet and if the need be, exercise their vocal chords. In return, they are able to suggest how the main cast goes about its business, often interrupting the taleem.

Although the starting time printed on the pamphlets all over town is 8:00 pm, the actors arrive by 7:30 pm to don their godly attires and make-up.

Lest we be mistaken that the conclusive product of days of taleem is a serious musical affair, we are met with a bunch of characters whose only ‘part’ during the week-long performance is that of extempore fun – a court jester dressed as a Disney clown and a dwarpal versed in Bollywood songs and contemporary Indian politics.

With the aid of collar mikes and slapstick humour, they roam among the audience poking fun at the characters on stage, especially when kings from various regions come to woo Sita in her swayamvar. One of the most popular jibes (and evoking maximum laughter from the audience) repeatedly used by these characters was to ask the arriving kings if they’ve brought along their Aadhaar card for identification!

On the fifth day of the Ramlila, Shurpanakha takes her chances first with Ram, and then Lakshman, only to leave with a bleeding nose. Manoj has gone to great lengths to make sure his lehenga, jewellery, make-up, etc. are in perfect condition. After all, he’s been doing this for the past eleven years and each performance can only be an improvement upon the previous. “Mere part ko dekhne ke liye sabse zyada log aate hain”, says Manoj.

Peeking from the make-up room at the performance venue, one can see that the crowd is at its thickest, everyone eagerly awaiting Shurpanakha’s entry. He has an indisputable inspiration for his role, “Sridevi!”. “Mere poore parivar ko bahut bada sadma laga tha jab wo guzri thi (My entire family was in shock when she passed).” Manoj was still mournful of Sridevi’s recent death. The movies Chandni and Nagina are his canons for dance moves as Shurpanakha.

Manoj erupts on the stage amid thunderous applause at the same time as the Nagina OST plays. He doesn’t miss a beat, sways his waist and hips, making sure his lehenga twirls for everyone to see.

He accosts Ram, Lakshman and a wide-eyed Sita seated under a makeshift thatched roof, clad in gerua-coloured clothes. Grinning coquettishly at the two brothers, he circles them, singing. The trio gawk at the multi-hued dancing figure. Manoj approaches a mic stand to begin his innuendo-laden song and dialogue, addressing not only the trio but also the crowd. After all, the crowd has come to see a show!

As the myth goes, Shurpanakha’s attempt in casual flirtation did not bode well for her. Manoj sings, he dances, he talks, the nose is slashed and he makes his way out. However, one is sure that the roaring applause (accompanied with whistles and hoots) is not for Shurpanakha’s humiliation, but for Manoj’s show.

The next morning, there is no news of a baagh at Numaish Khet or anywhere in the town. Jokingly, Manoj comments, “Mere part ke darr se baagh bhi nahi aaya (even the tiger was scared of my role)!”.

(Akash Joshi is a freelance photographer based in New Delhi. His interests include street photography, storytelling and the mountains. You can see more of his work on Facebook and Instagram.)

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