"What's Taking Place: Neighborhood Ramlilas in Banaras"

Thomas Parkhill

appeared in Living Banaras: Hindu Religion in Cultural Context, Bradley R. Hertel and Cynthia Ann Humes eds. Albany: SUNY Press, 1993.


from the introduction:

Arriving in Banaras in early autumn, 1984, I intended to follow other scholars from the West across the Ganges River to study the Ramnagar Ramlila, a religious drama of widespread reputation. Determined to learn how a religious story was treated in a performance context, I spent the first days of the Ramlila season negotiating the river currents and the sometimes soggy Ramnagar geography. One afternoon, after I'd literally missed the boat to Ramnagar, I began to explore my own neighborhood and discovered a Ramlila there. This was the first of many I found, most often by consulting the schedule that appeared daily in the Banaras newspaper, Ag.

I would try to arrive at each neighborhood lila site early in the evening, allowing some time for getting lost in the web of Banaras's narrow streets and some time to chat with the vyas (director), "decorator" (make up artist), or other Ramlila functionaries. On occasions when I was late, the sound of chanting, drums, and cymbals led me the last little way. Coasting up on my bicycle, I would most often see a number of men standing around a seated crowd, chiefly children and women. Their attention would be directed to a make-shift stage upon which actors in ornate costumes presented scenes from the adventures of Ram. The distinctive sounds I had heard as I approached, however, did not come from these actors.

Within fifty feet of the stage, often on the same ground the crowd hunkered down on, sat the ramayanis, a group of men of varying ages, chanting verses from a religious text, the Ramcaritmanas. The Manas was written in the sixteenth century by Tulsidas, a poetic genius and celebrated saint, presumably at his home on Tulsi Ghat in southern Banaras. Each evening of the Ramlila the chanting of the Manas punctuates the acting out of the story of the conflict between, on one side, Ram, his wife, Sita, his brothers, Laksman, Bharat, and Shatrughna, and the monkeys led by Hanuman; and Ravan and his demon hordes on the other.

Most of these roles are played by children. The child actors who play the main characters are understood by most of the audience as svarup, ("forms," "likenesses") which, like the solid images in the Hindu temples, can provide temporary homes or seats for the deities the actors represent. The only difference, I am told, between stone image and human image is that when the Ramlila is over, the svarups become boys again. The children who play Ram and his brothers, or better become Ram and his brothers, act out scenes from the story with stylized movements and speech patterns.

Consulting the newspaper Ramlila schedule every day during September and October and watching as neighborhood after neighborhood added its production to the list of available lilas, I became acutely aware of how popular this religious drama was in Banaras. At least sixty neighborhoods or muhallas in the Banaras area mount productions of Ramlila. Given the time, energy, expense, and expertise necessary for just one representative nine-day production of Ramlila, this is a staggering figure. Intrigued as much by the local variations in production as by the fact that there were so many Ramlilas going on all at once, I devoted the remainder of that season to visiting different Ramlilas. Reflecting on that experience now, two themes are clearest: 1) the tension between those who favored traditional productions of the lila and those who implemented innovations; and 2) the role Ramlila played in a neighborhood's sense of place.

from the section entitled: "Traditionalists and Innovators"

... The tension between those who want to keep the Ramlila traditional and pristine and those who are introducing "modern" innovations runs deep both in the conversation about Ramlila and in Hindu culture itself. In Banaras the issue is emotionally charged. Innovations are either contemporary enhancements or unfortunate corruptions, depending on one's point of view. Traditionalists worry that the neighborhood lilas are becoming "disco."

The connection between disco and Ramlila was first made for me by Virendra Singh, Hindi teacher and cultural guide to many of the foreign residents in Banaras. One day he began discussing Ramlilas. Upset with what he saw as the deterioration of one of the local Ramlilas, he predicted with disdain, "In ten years we will have disco lilas." Virendraji is very perceptive about the passing Banaras scene; no doubt many Banarsis share his concern. Without some notion of what "disco" means in this context, however, it may be hard to appreciate the depth of that concern. The word "disco" seems far removed from the world of Ramlila, a sacred world of ritual drama, mask, pilgrimage, and transformed geography. While "disco" has its slang roots in North America, it has been appropriated in a particular way into parts of India. Indians in Banaras used "disco" to refer to something or someone who is "cool," "hip," or, I suppose, "far out." That is, it is a word that is best translated by the current slang for something or someone that displays a sophisticated awareness of the intricacies of local popular culture.

In Banaras "disco" has a more insidious connotation. One Ramlila evening, a group of adolescent males approached me, pushed one of their number to the fore, and announced with fourteen-year old surety that their friend was a "disco dancer". I was nonplused, as I often was in Banaras. What, I wondered, would happen next? Would this smiling youth, dressed in "smart" polyester shirt and pants, dance? No, the denouement had been reached: the young man acclaimed as disco dancer had been shown to the Western visitor. That was sufficient. This ersatz darshan served to point up a crucial aspect of things "disco" in the Banaras area: "disco" meant demonstrating an ability to imitate Western fashion and attitudes. Although I could see no significant difference between the disco dancer and his friends, it was because I did not have their eyes to see what was obvious: his dress, behaviour and attitudes were quintessentially modern and Western; they displayed perfectly these young Indians' perception of what is was to be cool.

These young men probably approved of the "disco lilas" with their flashing electric lights, amplified movie music, and dancing "women." For Virendraji, however, the newer, less traditional aspects of the local lila were distressing.

from the section entitled: "Taking Place in Banaras Neighborhoods"

... What does it mean for Ramlila to be a "ritual"? One answer which I think is fundamental (but of course not exclusive of other meanings) is that the lila-ritual sacralizes the space in which it is done, whether that space is Ramnagar spectacular or neighborhood modest. One result of this sacralizing is that for the duration of the lila-ritual, the ground becomes a "place of clarification," a place where attention is focused to reveal significance. In Imagining Religion Jonathan Z. Smith writes:

A sacred place is a place of clarification (a focusing lens) where ... [human beings] and gods are held to be transparent to one another. It is a place where, as in all forms of communication, static and noise (i.e., the accidental) are decreased so that the exchange of information can be increased. [54]

As a focusing lens the Ramlila ritual is exceptional. Even at the most modest neighborhood lila there exists the possibility of an intimate interaction with God minus the distractions that complicate everyday life. In the lila, what Smith calls the "exchange of information" between humans and deities is made free of distortion by Manas chanting, and the dialogue between likenesses of God always on the edge of becoming temporary residences of that God. It is by means of this lila-ritual that lila-goers bring Place into being; it is by such means that they confer meaning on space, transforming and consecrating it into Place.

... If the two themes of this chapter have a point of contact, it is here. Both traditionalists and innovators in Banaras are intent on claiming and maintaining Place. Both want to provide an efficacious lila-ritual, one that casts a paradoxically temporary and enduring sacred aura over their neighborhood. They disagree on how best to do this. Electrification or no; amplification or no; hijras or no; each decision has larger implications. Each neighborhood Ramlila Committee must struggle with how best to respond to change, especially change from the West, and still maintain and know their Place. It is a struggle in which we all to some degree share. If the rich diversity of responses I witnessed is any indication, Hindu Banarsis will continue to take their Place in Shiva's city for a long time to come.

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