Ram Lila

Ram Lila theatre inherits the theatrical style of the Râs Lila theatre of the region just south of Delhi.  Music, costumes, make-up, and other staging conventions in the Ram Lila resemble closely their counterparts in the Râs Lila.  Râs Lila troupes sometimes keep a few episodes from the Ram Lila cycle in their repertoire.

The Ram Lila originated in northern India in the sixteenth century in connection with religious devotion to Ram, the divine protagonist of the epic Ramayana.  In the sixteenth century, the poet-saint Tulsidas composed a colloquial Hindi version of the Ramayana, which he titled Ramcharitmanas, “The Lake of Ram’s Deeds”.  Valmiki’s epic had been written in classical Sanskrit, a language largely inaccessible to the masses of people to whom the devotional movements of the early modern period appealed.  Tulsidas’ Hindi version of the epic facilitated the popularization of Ram stories.

Ram Lila 1834

Ramnagar Ram Lila in 1834

It wasn’t long after Tulsidas’ poem became the foundation of the Ram cult that devotees began to stage episodes of the  poem.  A tradition of Ramayana-based performance already existed in the form of public recitations of Valmiki’s Sanskrit text.  After, roughly, 1625, CE, dramatized adaptations of Tulsidas’s adaptation of the Ramayana began to catch on, under the influence of Tulsidas’ student Megha Bhagat.  The documentary history of the performance tradition begins in the early nineteenth century with the records of British colonists.

Unlike Râs Lilas, which are performed throughout the year, Ram Lilas coincide with the annual celebration of Dussehra, a mid-Fall festival, and are typically performed as a cycle of episodes over the course of several nights.  In some cases, professional troupes will be contracted to perform for a village or community.  As opposed to the way Râs Lilas are performed, most Ram Lilas are amateur productions, mounted by town councils or neighborhood associations as part of local Dussehra festivities.  This also means that Ram Lila performances are much more ubiquitous.  At least, in the days of Dussehra, small and large Ram Lila performances pop up all over India.

The variety of circumstances in which Ram Lilas are performed mean that the form of these performances varies greatly.  Ten sequential nights of episodic performances is not an uncommon format.  A single night in which the important episodes are compressed into two or three hours is not uncommon, especially where the performances are mounted by urban neighborhood organizations.  The great Ram Lila performance at Ramnagar, near Varanasi, involves thirty nights of performances every year.  In most cases, performances occur outdoors and on temporary stages.

Ravana Lila Effigy

Ravana Effigy in Mumbai. Photo by Elroy Serrao.

Whether performed on only a single night, or over the course of thirty, the culminating moment of a Ram Lila performance is the dramatization of Ram’s victory in face-to-face battle with Ravana.  Typically, this climactic moment involves the burning of an effigy of Ravana, often along with the effigies of two other characters.  The effigies of big-budget, urban Ram Lilas, such as at the Ram Lila grounds in central Delhi, are enormous—several stories high—and their conflagration makes for an impressive spectacle.

As with Râs Lilas, the ritual and theatrical activities that precede a Ram Lila episode can be extensive.  Furthermore, because Ram Lilas coincide with the Dussehra festival, they become associated with other Dussehra events, including parades that involve design competitions among floats that stage tableau-scenes from the Ram story.

Many Ram Lilas?

Scholar Darius Swann characterizes the Ram Lila as a “national drama”, on account of its ubiquity across India and its expression of a national ideal.  It is certainly true that very different people all over India produce and patronize Ram Lila performances during Dussehra days, so it may also be true that this theatre form comes closest to being recognized across the regions of India as a representative art.  The Ayodhya Research Institute in Ayodhya has managed a “continuous Ram Lila” since 2004 that showcases the variety of ways in which Ram Lilas are staged across India.  Styles include puppet stagings from eastern India and staging in the Yakshagana style of the far south.  Each night of the week, all-year long, some chapter of the Ram story is dramatized in some regional style or other in Ayodhya.

However, just as there are many different Ramayanas, people in India have different attitudes towards the Ram Lila tradition.  After all, the Ram Lila idealizes Ram, and in its most popular form it idealizes Hindi.  Consequently, the Ram Lila, as much as the Ramayana itself, has been a site of contention between Hindus and non-Hindus and between Hindi-speaking Indians in the north and speakers of the Dravidian languages of the south.  In Ayodhya, the ARI’s home base, great violence erupted in 1992 over matters related to Ram devotion.  Some areas have been forced to prohibit Ram Lila performances for fear of exacerbating tensions, particularly between Hindus and Muslims.

Colonial documents suggest that, historically, the Ram Lila has not been a sectarian event, but, indeed, was in the past century much more an event that involved and celebrated collective, regional community.  Non-Hindus, including Muslims, have in the past taken roles in Ram Lila productions.  It may be a symptom of a certain kind of religious nationalism—what we might call religious fundamentalism—that, in recent decades, has made the Ram Lila less about Indian identity and more about a particular Hindu identity.

Perhaps during the culmination of India’s independence movement in the 1940’s, the Ram Lila began to develop a highly sectarian character.  Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, Mahatma Gandhi relied on the Ramayana, or Tulsidas’s rendering of it, for language, characters, and imagery that characterized India as united and autonomous.  Gandhi used the term ramraj, or “age of Ram” to refer both to this mythic period of Ram’s rule in the Ramayana story, and also to the independent India he hoped would emerge from colonial rule—unified, self-sustaining, and a competent peer among independent nations in the world.  After India achieved independence (and Gandhi was assassinated), the term ramraj survived in political discourse as an epithet of an India which might be independent and unified under a Hindu government.  The implications of this ideology laid the foundations for the several political parties in India that have adopted explicitly Hindu identities.  For them, Ram and Ram Lila performances have become the emblems of an India that should be—because it was in times past—a Hindu nation.

Medieval EuropeThe cycle dramas and saints plays of the high middle ages seem to have been community productions, prepared and performed by the communities themselves (rather than by professionals), requiring the cooperation of various civic entities, of many sizes—including small, ad hoc productions and enormous thirty-day performances.  Religious conflicts following the Reformation led to bans of religious plays in most of western Europe in the sixteenth century, so that little of the tradition remains, and many questions about how the plays were produced and performed are, today, unanswered.Ram Lila productions in India might tell us a lot about religious theatre in medieval Europe.  The Ram Lila plays are also civic functions, connected with holiday festivities and traditional religion, occurring in a variety of sizes and styles.  Like the medieval spectacles, Ram Lila performances often involve parades and processions, and serve to demonstrate the power of local authorities.  A Ram Lila production such as Ramnagar’s may give us a glimpse at how the grand medieval plays—at Lucerne, say, or Donaueschingen—looked in performance.


Martyrdom of St Appollonia

Consider Jean Fouquet’s fifteenth-century painting of a production of the saint play The Martyrdom of Saint Appollonia.  One curious figure in this depiction of a medieval religious drama in performance is the man just right of center wearing a blue robe, a red cap, and holding a long stick with one hand and an open book with the other.  This person may only have been the music director.  We do find horn players in the upper left corner of the painting.  But this curious figure is standing in the middle of the play’s action.  Some have speculated that this is the “pageant master”, tasked with directing the production, but our modern sensibilities resist the notion that a director can be in a production without disrupting it.

In the Ramnagar Ram Lila, three men called vyasas act as directors.  This thirty-day performance of amateur actors, including children in the primary roles, requires the vyasas to be very much in the performance, directing action in the moment, prompting actors, and making sure that the many, various elements of the production—music, recitation, action, shifting locations, ceremonial entrances of local dignitaries, etc.—are properly coordinated.  The vyasas demonstrate just how a director can be in the action of a production, a very necessary element of the action, without distracting from it.


Further Study

Lutgendorf, Philip.  The Life of a Text: Performing the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

Richman, Paula, ed.  Many Ramanayas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Swann, Darius L. “Ram Lila” in Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance, Farley P. Richmond, Darius L. Swann, Phillip B. Zarrilli, eds. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990), 215-36.