Folk-traditions are not bound by any rules – they have their own logic. The Ramleela of Patoonda village in the Anta Tehsil of Baran district of Rajasthan is one such folk-tradition, which has a sound logic to celebrate Ramleela festivities around Ramnavmi during the month of Chaitra and Baishakh (April as per the Gregorian calendar), as opposed to all other Ramleelas held during the Shukla Paksh in the month of Asooj (Ashwin – September-October). Organisers of this Ramleela say that Ramleela is a story of Lord Ram, and hence, should be associated with the birth of Ram, i.e., Ramnavmi, and not with the death of Ravan, i.e., Vijaydashmi in Ashwin! This Ramleela, therefore, is being held around the festival of Ramnavmi for around 150 years!
But even bigger distinction of this Ramleela is that it is one of the only three known verse Ramleelas of India which are performed by singing – the other two being the Kumaoni Ramleela of Uttarakhand, and the now-extinct Haryanvi Ramleela of Rohtak. Dr. Induja Awasthi wrote in her doctoral thesis Ramleela: Parampara Aur Shailiyan that it is written in Harauti dialect of the Rajasthani language, having some sprinkling of Hindi also. This dialect has an influence of Dingal, an ancient language having a high-tone mode of writing with a flair of its own, which was prevalent in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Sindh areas in ancient and medieval times. Script of this Ramleela is preserved in around a dozen hand-written, bound books, and kept in safety in the house of the main organiser of this Ramleela, the septuagenarian Mohan Lal Nandwana. He emphasises that there is a prohibition on the publication of this script to maintain the purity of the narrative. “People in some nearby villages try to imitate this Ramleela by memorising the contents and music tunes, but that remains a poor fake only!” he chuckles.
Patoonda is a small village situated amidst the rocky barren land on the right bank of river Kali Sindh, a major tributary of Chambal river. It is 66 kilometres from Kota, the nearest major city and railway station. Population of Patoonda is around four thousand, of which about ten percent are Muslims, who actively participate in this celebration. A registered trust ‘Shri Lok Ramleela Mandal’ organises this Ramleela every year. Treasurer of this trust, Gopal Lal Nagar, says that this Ramleela is financed from the revenues earned from the produce of 26 bighas of land which had been donated for this Ramleela by Maharao Umed Singh, a ruler of Kota (1873-1940).
This Ramleela is primarily based on Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas and Ramayan of Valmiki. Guru Ganpatlal, a Dadhich Brahmin, is credited with the writing and starting the performance of this Ramleela. He is said to have had his education in Kashi (Varanasi). His ancestor Chaturbhuj is also said to have been associated with Ramleelas, although details of its origin are shrouded in obscurity. Dr. Awasthi noted that before Ganpatlal ji started this Ramleela, ‘Samaya’ was held for three days, in which the story only upto Swayamvar was shown.
Music, obviously, is a very important aspect of this Ramleela. The verses, written in Dhai Kadi (two-and-a-half lines), a folk-style, are composed mainly in Khadi Boli and Reela tarj (tunes). Dhai Kadi is a very commonly used style in the folk-singing styles of Rajasthan, Haryana, etc. Actor-singers are not professional singers, but the common-folk inhabitants of Patoonda. The instruments used earlier were chikara (a sarangi-like instrument), tabla and manjeera (crymbals). As the chikara-player has gone out of fashion, it has been replaced with violin, and harmonium is also used now.
Gopal Lal Nagar says that earlier, dresses and head-gear etc. were made in the village itself by the local people. Dhoti, kurta and sadri (half-sleeve waist-coat) were worn by the male characters, while female characters would wear lehanga, chunri, etc. Real gold and silver jewellery was given by the village households themselves for the Leela. Makeup material was also prepared with the help of materials locally available. “But now,” he says in somewhat lamenting tone, “ready made velvet dresses and artificial jewellery are procured from Mathura. Sita wears nylon sari instead of traditional lehanga and chunri.” Traditional pagdis and safa (headgears) are, however, still being used. No masks are used in it. Lighting was done initially by linseed-oil-filled mashaals (torches), which later changed to kerosene petromax, but now electricity is used for lighting. People come from far-off villages to watch this Ramleela, which starts late in the night, and continues until almost the wee-hours of the next morning. An important thing Nagar tells is that all characters are played by males only. It is ironic that the so-called development has brought nylon saris to Patoonda but still the society doesn’t allow any woman to wear them and play Sita. Nagar says female participation is still not allowed by the society at large.
It is held in front of the historic Laxmi Narayan temple, which is said to have been constructed in the 11th Century. A pucca structure with concrete roof has been constructed to be used as stage. It has a permanent, painted throne, pillars and painted roof. Painted curtains are used to show the locations of darbar, jungle, palace etc. Three ‘savaris’ or ‘yaatras’ (processions) are taken out during this Ramleela – first, on the opening day, to invite Ganesh ji to visit the Lila, the second is held on the fourth day, i.e., Ashtmi, of Ramchandra ji’s baraat (marriage procession), and the third one on the sixth day, i.e., Dashmi, when Ravan’s effigy is burnt (although Ravan is killed only on the last day of the Ramleela). Only one effigy of Ravan is burnt, and the Leela continues from the next day as usual. Interestingly, around fifty years back, Dr. Awasthi had seen no tradition of effigy burning, instead, Ravan was made with the help of around a dozen water-filled pitchers, which were destroyed by Lord Ram and all the villagers also with bamboo-sticks. Nagar has no recollection of when and why they shifted to effigy burning but one thing is certain that tradition is not a straight line.
(This year, the Ramleela will be held from April 1 to 14)