The shawls from the trunks are out and most of the woolens still carry a fading scent of naphthalene balls. People in the hills believe that winters don’t officially begin till the end of Diwali, but Ramleela taleems have begun in the town of Almora, and the girls need sweaters to step out for these practice sessions every evening. Taleems are recital practices for the Mohalla Ramleelas that will be performed during Dussera for ten consecutive nights. In the small world of these small towns of Kumaon, mohalla ramleelas play a bigger role than most of us can ever imagine. Talents are spotted by the elders sometime around August. There are children who can act, some can sing, and some can be quite a presence on stage. Bittu Karnatak who has been conducting Ramleela in Karnatak Khola has been going door to door to get permissions from the parents of these actors. All of these participants are girls.
Mohalla Ramleelas are community affairs all across Uttarakhand. Even the smallest of towns have 3-4 mohalla Ramleelas, and children from the neighborhood are invariably a part of it. Almora is Kumaon's cultural hub and Ramleela is somehow a more social than religious affair for reasons more than one. In 1996 it was the talk of this small town that in the Mohalla Ramleelas of Hukka Club and Karnatak Khola in Almora, female artists are beginning to perform lead roles. It was then initiated by some NGOs and women groups. I can still recall our extended family getting curious about the idea of watching women perform as Ram, Laxman and other major male characters. Some considered it an outright scandal.
Nearly two decades back one evening, the elders of the family took special effort to walk from Dharanaula to Hukka Club; walking the dreaded 52 stairs (famously called the Baavan Seedhi) uphill to reach from one end to the other, through the cramped streets of this hilltown. It was indeed an event, talked about for months among my aunts. I, however, remember only the whiff of roasted peanuts, sleeping midway through the performance and the drowsy ride back home on my father’s shoulder.
For years this event was unforgettable in the collective memory of the town for two reasons. Firstly, no one in this hilltown ever ditched the Ramleela of their own neighborhood and walked uphill in the dark to the other side of town on a freezing October night. The mere fact that women playing roles in the Ramleela attracted the crowd from the other end of town says a lot about the local fascination towards this change. Secondly, it was a historic event for the people of this town and they felt a sense of pride for pioneering a gender-sensitive change to the tradition of Kumaoni Ramleela that stood at the focal point of this deeply religious society.
Kumaoni Ramleela first started in 1860 at the famous Badreshwar Temple in Almora. Most old people who have spent their lives in this town would love to tell you stories about how this town has changed in the last few decades. Nostalgia for the erstwhile humble ways of the hills runs deep. Ramleela was first performed in this town in 1918 at Pant Koli, a neighborhood where the Pant Brahmins of Almora lived. This Ramleela was later known as the Nanda Devi Ramleela and is still the most popular performance of the town.
Bittu Karnatak, the Ramleela Committee Chairman of Karnatak Khola told me about the stories he had heard about the good old days when Ramleela was performed on the makeshift stage lit up with torches made of pine needles. He spoke about his childhood when they performed under petromax lanterns when his grandfather directed the actors in Pande Khola Ramleela.
The Ramleela tradition did spread to other towns of Kumaon; and every hill-town, quite democratically, altered the dramatization of Ramleela based on their convenience. The tradition that propagated in Almora was influenced by various artists from different regions of India who visited this hill station, for escape and inspiration. The Ramleela performed here became an amalgamation of different ragas of Hindustani Classical Music along with inspiration from raginis and kavvalis. A great change in this tradition was also welcomed when dance Maestro Uday Shankar came to Almora in 1938 and started a dance academy. His classical inputs to the ballet-based Kumaoni Ramleela are still cherished in the local tradition.
Over the years improvisations have always been welcomed, and women entering the stage of Ramleela in 1996 at Karnatak Khola and Hukka Club indeed felt like a seamless inclusion. To give context to this gender-positive social change we have to trace the local history too. The Anti-Liquor Movement in Kumaon in the 1980s was led solely by women. As breadwinners of several families destroyed by widespread alcohol addiction amongst men, women here were already at the social forefront and even led other social movements in the region like the Chipkoo Movement.
Last year I traveled to Almora once again to see this tradition up close and found myself at the backstage of Ramleela at Karnatak Khola. In this relatively smaller-scale Ramleela set up, I saw kids dressing each other up backstage with the sound on the mic reverberating on stage, addressing the chief guests of the day. Some parents join their kids backstage to help them with the dress and make-up. For actors playing lead roles, Taufeeq is a make-up artist who has been working with them for years, voluntarily.
For the last 22 years, the lead roles of Lord Ram and his three brothers have been played by young girls. Vinita is an experienced actor who had been playing Ram’s character for the last two years. She has played Laxman for 6 years prior to that. She’s leaving for college next year so her sister, Lata, dressed up as Laxman, has been instructed to observe her sister well on stage. In all probability, it will be her turn to play Ram next year.
Elder men save the roles of feisty looking villains for themselves. Bittu Karnatak, who plays Raavan, has also been instructing the kids, knows each one of them by their name, and is also compèring the show. Despite being the busiest man this evening he introduces me to all the kids. There are a total of 122 girls involved in the Ramleela this year as actors, dancers, and helpers. He, along with other experienced members of the Ramleela committee have been training all the actors since the 15th of August. In the three-month long taleem or learning sessions, the first 15 days are dedicated to the selection process which is based on their vocal talent. Chosen candidates have to attend the taleem every evening for the next 3 months. Vinita as Ram had almost 118 recitals to learn and it has taken her years to achieve perfection. She practiced with the harmonium and tabla players, who assist her recitals with sur and taal, for the last few months every evening. The elders who come and watch these practice sessions also help these kids understand the meaning of the recitals they perform.
On the day of Meghnad Vadh, as I sit backstage with the Harmonium and Tabla players, the veterans of the team; I notice how quickly they prompt the lines to Lata onstage when she forgets her lines. The audience is generous with applause too. The kids on stage are children everyone has seen growing up in the neighborhood.
On the last day of the performance, the actors arrive late. Like everyone in the town, they were busy watching a roadshow of the effigies on the streets of Almora, performed on the last day of Dussera. In fact, the entire town had been on the streets celebrating the whole day. The actors backstage are quite glum on the last day of the Ramleela. Vinita and Lata know that they have rather short appearances on stage today. When the curtains rise, the calm I see on their faces is divine, and an old male actor playing a priest does the Raj Tilak and initiates the coronation of Ram. Lata, who played Laxman, walks home with a 32 inch TV as a reward from the audience for being the most promising actor in this year’s Ramleela. Quite a generous reward, I feel, but the promise this tradition holds for our society is indeed priceless.