The week long residency of the East Coast Artists began yesterday with a lecture by Richard Schechner, the group’s artistic director. Schechner, a professor at NYU, acclaimed director, and author of numerous books on theater, spoke on the Ramlila of Ramnagar, a cycle play performed over 31 days in Northern India, which Schechner described as “a mixture of theater as we know it and religious devotion.”
Schechner began with an overview of the Ramayana, a Hindu epic and source material of the Ramlila. The protagonist, Rama, is the seventh avatar of Vishnu and a political as well as religious figure. The sprawling story tells of, in brief, Rama’s youth with his three half-brothers, his marriage to Sita (an incarnation of Lakshmi), Rama’s aborted coronation, the demon Ravana’s abduction of Sita and Rama’s rescue mission, and, finally, Rama’s ascension to the throne and, controversially, banishment of Sita.
The Ramlila is performed in the autumn festival in September and October in somewhat different versions all over northern India, but Schechner focused on the Ramlila Ramnagar, a 31-day version in the eponymous city. The production can be a very intense experience for audience members as the production begins each day at 4:00 in the afternoon, takes a break at 6:00 and then begins again around 8:00, going until 10:00 or so. Some choose to attend every night; attendance ranges from 2,500 on the less momentous nights to a high of 100,000.
The production is run by the maharajah, who now has no political power. It functions socially as a celebration, religious ritual and as a confirmation of Rama’s power, as well as that of the maharajah. Schechner emphasized that though the gods are embodied by prepubescent boys, the boys are considered to be the gods during the Ramlila, not just actors. The production’s principal four elements are the text, the direction from the maharajah and the priests, the actors and the spectators, who take an integral role in the action.
Though Schechner frequently mentioned the conservative nature of Ramlila theater- productions of the 19th century were quite similar to current ones- he said that the audiences of each generation see the Ramlila in a different way. The Rama of Gandhi’s time was more universal, the current one is more Hindu-centric. Elements of Rama’s story have been co-opted by politicians, with varying degrees of cynicism. But the Ramlila Ramnagar still captivates enormous audiences every year, and is a fascinating window into Hindu culture for all.