As it started getting dark everyone seemed to be in a hurry. Those were cold October nights in Delhi, when ladies would try to finish their household chores quickly, men would eat their dinner early, kids were dressed up to go out and the elderly would have already reached the venue to block seats for other family members.

The whole atmosphere around the venue was like some fair. There were hawkers selling peanuts, chaat and other eatables. Some would be selling balloons, handmade bow and arrow, gadha and other “warfare” items. And from the stage, there would be a regular announcement about the day’s show, inviting people to come fast as show was going to start in no time.

This was a common scene during Ramlila, an enactment of the epic Ramayana, in Delhi a few decades back. The 10-day performance, depicting the life of Rama, was part and parcel of almost every colony in Delhi during Dussehra. Those days, there was a festive fervour in the air and the streets would come alive at night. People from all walks of life would come to watch it. None wanted to miss even a day’s show. It was nothing but their love to watch the portrayal of the epic on the stage.

Wearing warm clothes, some peanuts in hand to munch, all of them enjoyed the show to the full. Most of the actors, from Ram to Lakshman and Ravana, were local residents. Among them Hanuman was arguably the most popular character. Many kids in the colony were part of Rama’s vanar sena (monkey brigade). The ten-day affair would end with burning effigies of Ravana, Meghnad and Kumbakarna, signifying victory of good over evil.

Once celebrated on such a grand scale, now Ramlila is losing its space not only in Delhi, but throughout the northern region. Among them Delhi has suffered the most as its space is shrinking year by year. Once every residential colony had its own portrayal of Ramlila, but now there are just a few in numbers. And they have become a highly technical, celebrity-centric and political affair. Even the audience is getting thinner by the day. Once people would fight to grab seats. Now even the front rows are lying vacant. There are no takers for them.

The big question is, what ails this theatre form? Why have people suddenly stopped taking interest in what was the biggest source of entertainment a few years back? There are various reasons. Some say abundance of entertainment sources, while some say rapid urbanisation and fast moving lifestyle. The old organisers are saying shortage of space and budget and lots of paperwork are working as an obstacle. Whatever the reason, is Ramlila dying a slow death?

The enactment

Ramlila, as the name suggests, depicts the life of Lord Rama and how he saves his wife Sita from the demon Ravana. The story of Ramlila has been adapted from Tulsidas’ Ram Charit Manas as well as Valmiki’s Ramayana. Mostly, it is performed in north India such as Ayodhya, Ramnagar, Benaras, Vrindavan, Almora, Satna and Madhubani.

Therefore, for years Ramlila has been the most attractive mode of entertainment as every narrow lane and neighbourhood would enact it. They say, Ramlila became part of Delhi’s culture during the Mughal era, when they shifted their Capital from Agra to Delhi. It was king Shah Jahan who began Ramlila in Delhi.

What ails it?

What affected Ramlila the most is arrival of other sources of entertainment. Those days, there were a limited number of entertainment sources and, therefore, people would eagerly wait for this festival. After introduction of cable television and now Internet, people are more introvert.

Moreover, today’s fast lifestyle has also affected it. People hardly have any time to spend for these leisure activities. The youth don’t even connect themselves with enactment of this epic. This is the reason that once the Capital had as many as 1,800 registered Ramlila committees in and around Delhi, which is now reduced to just a few hundreds.

Another problem for the dwindling interest is massive construction the Capital has witnessed in the last 15 years. This development drive has taken over open land, where small associations had been organising the play for decades. Another problem is budget. Due to inflation, prices have gone up. Those days, organisers would collect money from the residents. Everyone donated wholeheartedly, which is not the case now.

However, those that have survived have tried hard to change themselves in order to generate interest among the audience. The organisers are making the performance more modern and technology advanced. Those harmoniums, tablas and sarangis have been taken over by sophisticated musical instruments and orchestra.

Earlier, local dancers and actors would showcase their stage skills. Now trained dancers, orchestra, and film or TV actors are invited to entertain the audience.

Popular Ramlila

This is one of the oldest organisations to organise Ramlila at 15 August Park, opposite Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir near the Red Fort. What is special about their show is their use of the latest technology to appeal to a younger audience. The Committee will have a 160ft wide stage to add more drama to scenes such as Hanuman’s flight to Lanka. The effigy of Ravana is also one of the tallest in Delhi.

The actors performing the act are mostly traditional artists from Muradabad, plus a few actors from Mumbai, who were previously associated with the organisation. Notably, this Ramlila includes episodes from The Ramayana that are not usually seen elsewhere. This year the event’s main highlight is that the Ravana dahan will have a fourth effigy that will symbolize the end of assault on women and support the #MeToo movement.

This Ramlila is also known for the attendance of political personalities. This year, Vice- President M Venkaiah Naidu will perform the Rajtilak by daubing vermillion on the forehead of the actors playing Rama and Lakshmana. Congress president Rahul Gandhi along with Sonia Gandhi will be present to witness the burning of Ravana at this venue.

Luv Kush Ram Lila

Established in 1979, the Lav Kush Ram Lila Committee has been organising Ramlila at Red Fort and is known for involving celebrities in the play. Every year celebrities and actors participate and play different roles in Ramleela. This year, Union Minister for Environment and Science and Technology, Harsh Vardhan, will play Raja Janak, Sita’s father. Other than Ramleela, they organise a fair in the same premises. Visit this place to witness special sets and stunts like Hanuman flying, and Rama and Ravana engaging in mid-air battle.

Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra

This cultural institution also organises Ramlila. They have been presenting Sampoorna Ramliladance-drama every year since 1957. This is the 62nd year of the grand dance drama, which started on 10 October at 6.30 p.m. This year the month-long festival is dedicated to the memory of the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and was inaugurated by L K Advani, former Deputy Prime-Minister. They use special effects with an English translation.

Ramlila Maidan

This is one of the oldest venues in Delhi, where Ramlila is performed on a very grand scale. What is special about it is that every day before the show, there’s a parade of costumed performers through the lanes of Old Delhi.

Shri Dharmik Lila Committee

Apart from organising Ramlila, a mela, or fair, is also organised in the same premise. In addition to Ramlila, they organise various stage programmes, like Kavi Sammelan, Sunderkand Paath, magic shows and comic plays. Dance competitions for kids are held followed by prize distribution.

Ministers, religious and social leaders, dignitaries and people from all communities witness the functions with exhilaration and enthusiasm. Another big pull here is the variety of mouth-watering street food served at various stalls!