A new play makes Ramayana relevant for Gen-Z, mixing various traditions and also weaving in ‘Ganga-Jamuni Tehjeeb’
Shweta Jha and Payal Seth | September 29, 2022
There is this popular saying that epics are never told, but always retold. Ramayana is one such epic and needs no introduction. Its plot is grounded in sacrifice and the end brings out hope that the good always wins. But how is a centuries-old tale of the prince of Ayodhya still relevant for today’s generation? A play, ‘Ram Shravan Manan’ which was staged at Shri Ram Centre, Mandi House, New Delhi on September 19, attempts to answer this question. The play was organized by the Department of Art, Culture, and Languages, Government of Delhi, and Sahitya Kala Parishad and performed by Trialogue Studio. This review takes the readers through a unique interpretation of Ramayana and its relevance to modern society.
The play opens with melodic verses celebrating the glory of Ram. Just as the audience becomes engrossed in the flow of the soothing music, their sense of collective calmness is shattered by the entrance of a boy (representing the younger generation) who is blasting today’s loud music on his speakers. Thus began a distinct discussion around music that stands out as a representation of this chaotic period, and the necessity of a genuine attempt to seek calmness and peace. This opening scene draws attention to the name of the play – ‘Ram Shravan Manan’ (that is, listening and reflecting using the name of Ram) – that will help us find the relevance of Ramayana in contemporary socio-political life and garner insight to self-reflect our motives and actions.
The play was designed by Sudhir Rikhari who revealed his excellence by selectively picking out certain sections from the Ramayana to initiate a discourse around its relevance for Gen-Z. For instance, consider a section on NaradaMoha, an incident preceding the events of Ramayana. The depiction narrated that the curse of Narada had to come to fruition and this curse yielded the seed for incidents such as the birth of Ram and the separation of Ram from Sita. Thus, a strong message was invoked around wisely selecting our actions as every action yields its fruit. The next brilliant portrayals were related to the miracle around the birth of Sita in which she became the symbol of pain and suffering of people caused due to the havoc created by Ravana and the reason that will lead Ravana to bear the fruit of his actions. There was a staging of a verbal drama between Lakshmana and Parashurama that led to the discussion about the genesis of anger which resides in the shattered ego, unfulfilled desires, and expectations. One of the most touching parts of the play was the portrayal of Kaikeyi and the unearthing of her dilemma: her unfathomable love for Rama on one hand and her fear of an insecure future for Bharata (Ram’s younger brother), on the other. A heart-rendering beautiful song capturing the hardships of Princess Sita during her fourteen years in exile made the audience feel her pain. The lyrics for these scenes were handpicked from Tulsidas’ Ramcharitamanas, elevating the ingenious of the play.
The highlight of the show was the intellectual debate between Ram and Ravan before the war. Though Ravan accepts his defeat in this debate (which represented his actual defeat in the war), he still manages to claim his immortality. In his hair-raising voice, Ravana announces that for the eternal time ahead, he will reside in each one of us in the form of our desires. Ravan according to them was a representation of the desire for cultural dominance as he forced his conventions of dharma (one’s moral duty) over others in today’s time. This left the audience with their own thoughts, introspecting the presence of Ram and Ravana inside themself all along. Leaving the audience with their deep contemplative thoughts, the play was successful in achieving its goal of ‘Ram Shravan Manan’.
This rendition of Ramayana was enriched with many unique elements. Along with the verses from Tulsidas' Ramcharitamanas, this musical venture included compositions from regional Ramayana traditions such as Uttarakhand Kumaoni Raamleela and Janakpuri Raamleela, among others. The musical sense, and command over the vocal range and proportion of all the artists, supported by the skills of Rashmita on Sitar, and Roman Das on Pakhawaj beautifully elevated this oral retelling to the scale of epic grandeur. The attention of the audience was grabbed by a qawwali extracted from Uttarakhand Raamleela to celebrate the marriage rituals of Ram and Sita. This inclusion of qawwali was exemplary as it demonstrated the liveliness of Ganga-Jamuni Tehjeeb, thus establishing itself as evidence of cultural exchange between the two religious communities.
It also unleashed an altogether new wave of energy in the theatre where the audience were no more spectators but participants with each hand clapping and contributing to the qawwali. The ancient technique of shadow puppetry served as a visual treat to demonstrate the abduction of Sita by Ravana. The play was a beautiful amalgamation of regional/folk elements and widely held conventions, ancient plot and modern retelling, and the inevitability of unwavering morals and ethics in the impermanence of this world.
To the unfamiliar audience who delighted in the performances of the only two women actors on the stage, we would like to point out that this incredible talent was depicted by the mother-daughter duo, Dr. Pushpa Bagga and Ridhima Bagga.
This musical journey by Trialogue Studio challenged the audience to self-reflect and relocate the traits of Rama and Ravana within them. The actors also gave a concluding demonstration for the same. The young boy who had entered the stage with blasting speakers was now absorbed with the thoughts of penance for having filed a property case against his brother (as opposed to Ram leaving his kingdom for the sake of Bharat). The most beautiful lesson that the end imparted was that the ego is more dangerous in seemingly self-believing good people than the bad ones. The former are under a delusion while the latter at least are more honest and more aligned with their desires and actions. Hence, the urgency to find Ram – a representation of the calmness, poise, strength, patience, humility, kindness and love – should be felt by all of us.
While the artists clarified to us that this play was still a work in progress and will be improved upon in the upcoming shows, their name and talent still packed a full house. The play left the audience with the elevated energy of the artists. In the end, the audience reciprocated with thunderous rounds of applause.
Shweta Jha is a Master’s student studying Comparative Indian Literature at the University of Delhi. Payal Seth is a PhD scholar at Bennett University.
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