Year after year, Shri Anant Ramleela Mandal from Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, arrive in Mumbai and perform Ram Leela through the entire period of Navaratri at Girgaon Chowpatty. They have been doing this for the 56 years.
This time around, Director Baidyanath Chaturvedi has stayed back in Uttar Pradesh. The COVID-19 situation has prevented the gathering of large groups and religious congregations across India, particularly in Maharashtra, which has been struggling to bring the pandemic under control.
Girgaon Chowpatty, that would have otherwise been lit up from October 17 till Dussehra on October 25 and registered a steady surge of devout Rambhakts over the days, will lie barren this year.
And, Baidyanath looks back at the time when he’d be rushing about backstage to make sure all the characters have put on their costumes and make up. The backstage would be scattered with costumes and props lying around and the all-male members would be busy finalising their appearances before they go on stage.
“My father had formed the group 80 years ago in Mathura and I helped him ever since, till he left everything to be run by me,” he recalls with pride on the performances of the past. The group has been performing Ram Leela and travelling all over the country for various events to perform the same. This year around, things have come to a halt.
Even Bal Mukund Chaturvedi, who runs a general store in Mathura, and has been playing the role of Ravan since 1982, will be missed dearly. The man, part of the troupe for the last 46 years, had started off by playing Ravan’s son Meghnad till he was ‘promoted’ to play the big role.
Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur native Kailashnath Patel, who has been living at Borivali in Mumbai, yet makes it a point to arrive much before time to see his favourite adhyays held at Chowpatty, for decades together, has been prevented from venturing out of home now.
“For years, he would visit the Ram Leela at Chowpatty that would be a lot bigger than the one he’d watch at his village. He would look forward to it for months on end. But, now, with the situation so different, we have stopped him from moving out,” says electrician son Gaurav, fearing for his elderly father’s health.
“Kya ladai hoti thi… hanuman idhar se aata hai, ram udhar se and fir raavan aata hai…Ram ke baan maarne pe kya maza aata tha,” quips an excited Kailashnath while recalling the days of watching Ram Leela with his friends in tow for years on end. Now, most of his friends have moved to Uttar Pradesh leaving Kailashnath alone.
Like every other traditional folk art, Ram Leela has sadly been losing its audience over the years to technology and time. Earlier, the grounds used to be thronged with people coming to view Ram Leela in full grandeur over the nine nights. It was part of the festivities during Navratri. Children would often be seen sitting right in the front to get the best view and would applaud and break into a jig at every warranted instance.
Over the last few years, the audiences would be scarce, yet surge to a decent number on Dussehra, when Ravan would be killed. This year, with the state government laying down strict caveats for celebrations and public invitations owing to the COVID-19 situation, the Ram Leela will not be held at Chowpatty. At least, now not in the scale it has been held over the years.
While the government has promoted the relay of Ram Leela digitally and straight into devotees’ homes, there is a pleasant alternative, this year around.
Ayodhya ki Ram Leela, will be staged at Lakshman Kila on the banks of Sarayu river in Ayodhya, a few kilometers from the site where the Ram Temple is being built. To be made available virtually in 14 regional languages, there will be subtitles to help reach a larger audience across the country.
Slated to be held till October 25 before a limited audience owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ayodhya Ki Ram Leela will be broadcast on cable TV, YouTube and other social media platforms, offered Neelkant Bakshi, the chief media advisor of the organising committee.
And, there’s an esteemed list of high-profile participants that include Vindu Dara Singh as Hanuman, Ritu Shivpuri as Kaikeyi, Asrani as Narad, Shahbaz Khan as Ravan, Rakesh Bedi as Vibhishan, Raza Murad as Ahiravana, Avtar Gill as Janak, Ravi Kishan as Bharat and Manoj Tiwari as Angad.
Grandmother Shalini Mishra, resident of Charni Road, Mumbai, who has been attending Girgaon Chowpatty’s Ram Leela every year religiously for the last ten years, was distraught at learning that the event would not be held this year. “Now, she looks forward to the online telecast of Ayodhya ki Ram Leela, which started on October 17. It’s a wonderful venture by the government. That way, they ensure the devout stay back at home too and safe,” says son and saree shop owner Rakesh Mishra.