Ramleela of Mithila: A Forgotten Tradition of Folk Theatre

– Dr. Kailash Kumar Mishra

[Dr. Kailash Kumar Mishra is an anthropologist, art-historain and Human Rights Expert; he is the Chairman of BRAINKOTHI, and RIRKCLRC. Dr. Mishra is  based in New Delhi. His emails: [email protected], [email protected]]


ramleela1The two great epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata from time immemorial have been influencing every sphere of life and culture in India. Both the epics are considered to be the Pancham (fifth) Veda along with Dhanurveda and Ayurveda. These two epics are also considered to be the first written or well documented itihasas or histories full of genealogical records of incidents and accidents in life of different characters. Most of the episodes of these two epics are directly connected with the historical characters. In various phases of devotional development in Hinduism the poets and writers made their attempts to write the essence of Ramayana of Valmiki in the language of common men and women of the specific geographical pockets. Such experiments of the regional scholars and saints made the texts of the Ramayana very popular in India and Indian Sub-continents. Tulsidas for example wrote Ramcharitmanasa in Awadhi or old Hindi. Kamban wrote Kambaramayana in Tamil, In Kerala Patala wrote Ramayanam and Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan in the 16th century wrote Adhyatma Ramayanam Kilipattu in Malayalam; In Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Ramayana is known as Sri Ranganatha Ramayana and was adapted by Buddha Reddy; Eknath wrote the Marathi Bhavartha Ramayana in the 16th century; Krittivas Ojha composed the Bengali Ramayana in 15th century; Madhava Kandali wrote Kotha Ramayana in Assamese in 15th century; in Orissa, Oriya Balaramadasa Ramayana was adapted by Balarama Das in the 16th century, and in Punjabi language, Guru Gobind Singh wrote the Ramavatara in 17th century. Mithila has always been known for its scholarship and unparallel dominance in Dhramshashtra and tantra. Four Maithil scholars composed Maithili Ramayana in different phases of history: Kavivar Chanda Jha (1831-1907) composed Mithilabhasa Ramayan, Lal Das composed Rameshwarcharit Ramayana, Acharya Ramlochan Sharan (1890-1971) composed Maithili Ramcharit Manas, and last but not the least Viswanatha Jha “Bishpayi” wrote Ram Suyash Sagar in early 1980s. The influence of various forms of Ramayana and their episodes mainly the episodes of Seeta encourages the women and the common folk who were not much educated either in Sanskrit in the beginning or Modern subjects including English in the later phase of modern history of Mithila to create songs, small poetic dramas and complete folk theatrical performance on Ramayana. Women confined themselves in songs and ritual incantations but the common folk of Mithila went ahead and started performing the complete episodes of Ramayana in the form of Ramleela. The Ramleela tradition of Mithila has several unique identities. Unfortunately, because of the Ramayana serial this tradition almost vanished. The artists have either joined other petty jobs or many of them have been living the retired life. Some of the well-known Ramleela artists are also dead. In this article I have made an attempt to talk very briefly about the history, uniqueness, style, relationship between the audience and performers, the role of Vyasa and the management of show and last but not the least the measures by which this very rare intangible heritage of Mithila can be once again revived in a changing scenario and fresh atmosphere while retaining its flavor of originality.

The Land: Mithila
Far away from Indian big cities and the modern world lies a beautiful region once known as Mithila. It was one of the first kingdoms to be established in eastern India. The region is a vast plain stretching north towards Nepal, south towards the Ganges and west towards Bengal. The present districts of Champaran, Saharsa, Muzaffarpur, Vaishali, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Supaul, Samastipur etc., and parts of Munger, Begusarai, Bhagalpur and Purnea of Bihar cover Mithila. It is completely flat and free from rock or stone. Its soil is the alluvial slit deposited by the river Ganges, rich, smooth clay dotted with thousands of pools replenished by the monsoon, the only reservoirs until the next monsoon. If the monsoon is late or scanty, the harvest is in jeopardy. But if the rain god is kind, the whole plain bursts into green from October to February, dotted with man-made ponds where beasts and peasants bath beneath ancient vatvrikshas. In this mythical region, Rama, the handsome prince of Ayodhya and incarnation of the Vishnu, married princess Seeta, born of a furrow her father King Janaka had tilled. Mithila is that sacred land where the founders of Buddhism and Jainism; the scholars of all six orthodox branches of Sanskrit learning such as Yajnavalkya, Bridha Vachaspati, Ayachi Mishra, Shankar Mishra, Gautama, Kapil, Sachal Mishra, Kumaril Bhatt and Mandan Mishra were born. Vidyapati, a Vaisnav poet of 14th century was born in Mithila who immortalized a new form of love songs explaining the relationship between Radha and Krishna in the region through his padavalis and therefore the people rightly remember him as the reincarnation of Jaideva (abhinavajaideva). Karnpure, a classical Sanskrit poet of Bengal, in his famous devotional epic, the Parijataharanamahakavya gives an interesting account confirming the scholarship of the people of Mithila. Krishna tells his beloved Satyabhama, while flying over this land on way to Dwarka from Amravati, “O lotus-eyed one behold! Yonder this is Mithila, the birthplace of Seeta. Here in every house Saraswati dances with pride on the tip of the tongue of the learned (Mishra, Kailash Kumar 2000)”. Mithila is a wonderful land where art and scholarship, laukika and Vedic traditions flourished together in complete harmony between the two. There was no binary opposition.
Ramleela of Mithila

ramleelaMithila Ramleela like other parts of India and Indian Sub-continents is organized in a makeshift open-air theater at night by the trained artists, all males. No female participates in the traditional Mithila Ramleela. Ramleela, meaning “folk theatrical performances of Rama’s life”, is a performance of the great Indian epic Ramayana in the form of a series of scenes that include song, narration, recital and dialogue. As a composite cultural and life way ritual, Ramleela, dedicated to the life and deeds of Lord Rama, has served the purpose of devotional worship, sacrificial offering, eulogy, meditative experience and immersive communion. Ramleela of Mithila is based on multiple stories and folklore. Here focus is always given on the exploitation and pains of Seeta, who, according to the Ramyana, was the daughter of Janaka, the King of Mithila. You can easily observe the common saying among the elderly women about Seeta: Ram biyahne kun phal bhela/seta janm akarath gela (What benefit did Seeta get being the consort of Rama! Her birth as woman became a curse!”). There are number of rituals and other songs that depict the helplessness of Seeta, her sacrifice for Rama and Rama’s cruel and careless attitude for Seeta. In one song it is depicted that in the jungle at the hut of sage Valmiki, Seeta gives birth to two sons of Rama: Lav and Kusha. She requests a barber to intimate this news in Ayodhya, mainly to Kaushilya, Kaikeyee and Sumitra, but she warns him to take all care to ensure that Rama in no way should be informed about this. She develops friendship with the wild animals, birds and other creatures of jungle and shares her pains and hardships with them. Even today, when a woman is frustrated with the attitude of her husband or any male in the family she becomes furious and out of great emotional loss she cries: phatoo he dharti – My dear Mother Earth, this is enough! Now may I request you to crack in equal halves where I can jump in and end my life!!! Such examples are numerous. To explain each one would be a digression from the subject of Ramleela.
ramleela2All characters of Ramleela in Mithila are played by the male actors alone. They perform the role of female characters such as Seeta, Kausalya, Sumitra, Kaikeyee, Sunayna, Mandodari, Arundhati and others. However, they fail to create the real effects in depicting the female characters in most of the situations. The Ramleela Mandli consists of all actors, assistants, cooks and helpers. Majority of the roles are played by the Brahmins and some characters are performed by the other castes also. The episode, dialogues, narratives, musical recitation, scenes and stage management everything is done under the strict guidance of the Vysa. Vyasa, as is clear from its nomenclature is the most knowledgeable person. He knows how to play harmonium and sing melodious songs. He props the artists and supports them when they are delivering the dialogues on the stage. The Vyasa works hard and reads all the major texts about the Ramyana. He is also aware of folklore and folk rituals and uses them in performances to give the local flavor. He is more of an internal innovator who thinks of innovative dialog delivery, couplets and other verses. He converts the entire episodes in his own language and develops unique style of saying the message. He uses the Maithili, Bhojpuri, Magahi, and Avadhi along with Hindi in his poetic creation and according to the place and language of the people he keeps on changing the situation. In a war scene between Lakshmana and Ravana I have observed unique dialogue deliveries between the two characters in a typical modern Hindi language all in poetic diction. Some examples are given below:
Ravana says to Lakshmana: Bak bak bak bak mat karo bakri ki tarah/ Ara lekar chhed doonga lakdi ki tatrah.
Outraged with this Lakshmana responded: Itne din tak tum soye the gadde aur galeechon pe/ Aaj mai tujhe sulaa doongaa mitti aur dhelon pe.
In one episode, Bharat comes to meet Ram and Lakshman in the jungle and requests them to come back to Ayodhya. Lakshman expresses his anger to Kaikeyee and says: Kaanta tha so nikal gaya ghrito ka diya jala lena/ Kah dena mata kaikei se bharat se raaj chala lena .
When the demon king Ravana kidnaps Seeta and is forcefully taking her to Lanka, the helpless Seeta sings a pathetic song and remembers Rama, her consort. She feels that she has been facing such difficult situation because she has not served her parents and in-laws as a devout daughter and daughter-in-law:
Ha raghunandan/ dusta nikandan/ mohe khabaria to lahak ho Rama/ Mata-pita ke sebo ne keliyai/ sasu-saur ke sevo ne kelyai/tai bhelyai ban ke koyaliyaa ho Rama/

In one more songs while going to Lanka with Ravana Seeta explains the story she was trapped:
Siya sudhi sunahu ho raghurai/ bipra rupa dhari ravan bani aayel/ bhiksha lae gohrai/ Siya sudhi sunahu ho raghurai/ Bhiksha lene niklali Janki/ rath par liyo chdhai/ Siya sudhi sunhu ho Ragurai…
After hearing this helpless song, Jatayu comes to Seeta’s rescue and the Vyasa sings from the distance: Itna bachan sunat giddha khagpati/ rath ko liyo rokai/ charan chonch se maha yudhha kinho/pankh gayo jhahrai/ Siya sudhi sunahu ho Raghurai/
All such depiction in the local language creates a massive audience support for the theatrical performance. The audience gets totally involved into the play and enjoys every moment of it in complete devotion and involvement. Such is the power of this kind of innovation.

Usually the entire episodes of Ramyana are performed in 20-40 days depending upon the paying capacity and interest of the villagers of a particular village. There is an interesting way of getting each day’s food and other expenditures from the villagers. At the peak of the drama the main character appears before the audience keeping a garland of flower in his hand. Now he request the audience assembled to see the performance to hold the garland for the next day. The person who holds the garland takes the responsibility of paying the entire costs of the team including food, stage, honorarium of the artists etc. for the next 24 hours. Once it is done the artist announces the name of that person loudly with great joy and passion. Everybody present for the performance gives him the standing ovation. The same practice is repeated every day.
In order to please the youth the Ramleela artists perform dramas and plays after a gap of 7-8 days and generate support from the spectators of all sections of the society. This initiative helps them to earn extra income and exhibit the hidden creative genius.

The involvement of the spectators in all process of creativity is observed in every sphere of the performance of Ramleela. I remember one incident. In my village, some 30 years ago a Ramleela Troupe came to stage the Ramleela for 40 days. A day before the staging of Lanka dahan episode the Vysa requested the spectators to bring fruits, flowers, sweets, etc. for decorating Ashok Vatika and surroundings and for the consumption of Hanumana. The spectators followed the instructions with devotion and brought fresh fruits, sweets, etc., as prasada and handed over to the artists.

The Ramleela artists use to travel to Jharkhand, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, parts of Bengal and Orissa and also in Nepal for theatrical performance of Ramleela. In the Bhojpuri speaking regions the Maithils were known as performers of Ramleela. All of a sudden, immediately after the release and telecasting of Ramayana serial this tradition failed to sustain. A powerful and valuable genre of Maithili folklore is extinct. And surprisingly, no cultural institution or individual has come forward to protect this art form.

Reasons for the disappearing of the Ramleela Tradition in Mithila

As has already been stated above, the telecasting of the Ramayana serial and availability of the CD and VCD etc., in the open markets are the main reasons of the dying of this art form. The second most important reason is the lack of sponsorship from the maharaja of Mithila. The kings of Mithila always neglected this art and the artists. The girls were never encouraged to participate in the Ramleela performances. The actors were always treated very low and never respected in the society. They hardly managed to perform the play with proper dresses and costly attributes including the decoration of stage, lighting arrangements, ornaments etc. This art form was not linked with the great cultural tradition of Mithila. No serious research work was done to preserve and protect this art form. There has been no academic interest or scholarship to highlight the glory and power of Mithila Ramleela. The lack of financial support and over indulgence of the Brahmins and Karna Kyastha did not allow the performers to be innovative in stage management, costumes, and even the delivery of dialogues. The lower castes of Mithila did not attach itself in true spirit and commitment with this tradition. The so called modern and educated class kept itself away and always treated this art form as below their dignity to join. No attempt was made to include Mithila Ramleela as curricular or even the extracurricular activity in school or college syllabus. The artists were neglected, compelling them into daily labour and other petty jobs for sustenance.

Measures to Revive the Tradition

There is an urgent need to revive the tradition of Mithila Ramleela Mandali in changing perspective. This according to me is possible if the following measures are considered seriously by the Government and also by the people of Mithila:

• Mithila Ramleela should be revived in the new form. The girls should be allowed and encouraged to learn it as performing art and represent Mithila through this creativity. A social movement may be created to see that the concept of Ramleela is spread like the concept of Mithila painting which got recognition world over in a few years.

• The government with the help of art institutions, anthropologists, performers, etc. should make serious attempt to identify the master artists, Vyasa etc. of Ramleela to appoint them as the teacher performers and young children and students from all over Mithila should be encouraged to join the course of learning the art of Ramleela from them.

• All the universities of Mithila and some other Universities of Bihar and also other parts of India may be instructed to start Mithila Ramleela as curricular and evaluative subject under the performative arts.

• Art Institutions and clubs such as Sangeet Natak Academy, Ministry of Culture, Spic Macy ICCR, CCRT, schools etc. should arrange performances of Mithila Ramleela in various places and platforms.

• The well-known and creative performs of Ramleela tradition should be honored with Padmshree, Padmavibhushan, and other awards. Such awards will encourage the other people to join this art form with interest and commitment.

• All communities and castes of Mithila should be encouraged and sensitized to feel proud about this tradition and get involved in multiple ways.