The age old tradition of playing Ramlila is the story of life of Rama who is 7th incarnation of Lord Vishnu is continuing till date with same glory. It is a dramatic folk re-enactment that continues for 10 days and ends up with the battle between Lord Ram and Ravana. Or rather it is dramatization of the epic-Ramayana.
Ramlila is staged in India every year during entire Sharad Navratras which also marks the beginning of the Autumn festive period. Dussehra is the last day of Ramlila which marks the celebration of the victory of Lord Ram over the demon king Ravana. The actors dressed as Ramayan characters are held in procession and are taken to a mela ground where the final battle is enacted. Then with the burning of huge effigies of Ravana, Kumbhakaran and Meghanad Dussehra is celebrated.
Mostly Ramlilas are played in open-air theatre at night. Usually the dialogues of the play are adapted from Tulsidas's Ramcharitramanas. The original Avadhi verses are translated in Khadi Boli in some regions. There are groups of people or local Ramlila committees called mandalis who perform dramatic version of Ramayana.
Traditionally, the actors are amateur which are picked from social groups. A singer narrates the verses from the holy Ramayana related to the forthcoming scene during the transition between two scenes or when tension is building up. The dialog is improvised according to current situations and audience reactions.
UNESCO realized the cultural importance of Ramlila and due its diverse representation across the globe UNESCO declared Ramlila a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005. Every region has its own distinct format of Ramlila. The cycle of events from the great legend of Ramayan are played for different duration ranging from 7 to 31 days.
Different styles of Ramlila
The celebrations in festive environment and religious rites are greatly evoked by Ramlila performances. Ramlilas of some places like Ramnagar, Varanasi, Ayodhya, Almora, Satna and Madhubani is very popular.
These Ramlilas follow different styles. The jhankis or panorama of the life of Lord Rama is depicted in pantomime style. Most Ramlilas represents this style.
Next is Theatrical style. This style is based on rendering the story musically as like in Almora or Kumaon style.
The operatic style involves the use of folk theatre elements in generous amount. Inspite of this the tradition of using dialogues and reciting couplets of Ramcharitmanas in choir remains intact. Ramlila "mandalis" stage melodrama for more and more active participation or involvement of audience. Ramlila is an important event in religious and social sphere like other folk theatrical forms of India.
A unique staging of Chitrakoot Ramlila continues for 5 days in last week of February. The Ramlila starts with staging the Bharat-Milap episode from Mahashivratri. Three day celebrations in Agra as Ram Barat is another interesting tradition connected with Ramlila, where a marriage procession of Lord Rama guise is taken through roads of the city.
Interesting of all... a unique Ramlila is staged at Bakshi Ka Talab near Lucknow where Muslim youths play the role of lead characters like Rama, Lakshman and Hanuman. This four-day Ram Lila starts on the day of Dusshera day.