Trinidad Ramlila Goes to India

Trinidad Ramlila Goes to India
Photo : Rehearsal of Ramlila at Hindu Prachaar Kendra

A cast of sixteen performers left for India on Saturday evening to perform Trinidad Ramlila at the Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, India.  Accompanying the young performers are three parents, a Sadhu and his wife and Geeta Ramsingh Vahini, President of the Hindu Prachaar Kendra (HPK).

Raviji, Spiritual Head of the HPK, said that Kumbh Mela has its origin in the battle of the gods and the demons for the amar or nectar, one of the ingredients that came out of the churning of the ocean. In the struggle for the kumbh the jug fell to the ground and the amar was spilt at four places. These sites are today centres for spiritual seekers throughout India. 

Ramlila starts at banwas, that is, when Rama left for exile according to the scholars.  Raviji see the evolution of the Trinidad Ram Leela as similar to the development of Tulsidas’ Ramayan in Banaras, India.

“Tulsidas started Ramayan with Satsangh or religious gathering of the masses and later Ramlila or opened air portrayal of Ramayan evolved,” said Raviji and drew parallel with the development of Ramlila in Trinidad. “When our forefather came to Trinidad they brought the story of the Ramayan. Satsangh was held in the barrack yards under trees. It was later that the Ramlila, the opened air theatre developed.”

Photo : Ravi Ji

The Ramayan was written in poetry and the devotees would sing and entertain themselves. The teaching of the Ramayan became stored in the subconscious and ‘and would kick in’ when needed.

The Ramlila performances at the Kumbh Mela would be in three 30 mins sessions using verses from the Ramayan which will be communicated in four languages- English, Hindi, Sanskrit and Trinidad dialect.

The cost of return passage to India, accommodation, internal transport and meals is covered by the Ayodha Research Institution of Uttar Pradesh.

Raviji could not say whether Surinames and Guyanese would be going to the Kumbh Mela to perform Ramlila. “Guyana opened air Ramliila was stopped during the riots in the 1960s. Fearful of being in the opened air, the portrayal went underground and survived in the batwaan (cooking nights) in wedding houses. Later the birth of orchestras with filmi music and songs in the 1960s and 1970s replaced much of those plays,” said Raviji. “Nevertheless, the HPK has undertaken a project to help with the resuscitation of Ramlila in Guyana. In 2006 the HPK started Ramlila at the   Bal Gopal Mandir in Georgetown.”

Raviji learned that the Dharmic Sabha performed Ramlila at Carifesta recently. As for Suriname Ramila opened air theatre is alive. However, Raviji said that he could not confirm the Surinames performance of Ramlila at the Kumbh Mela.

“Our ancestor came with two classical language—Tamil and Sanskrit- and two epics -Mahabharat and Ramayan- and twenty languages. In fact, they brought two Ramayans—the Valmiki Ramayan written in Sanskrit and the Tulsi Ramayan written in Awadi,” said Raviji. “This demonstrated that our ancestors brought with them an entire civilization which they planted in the Caribbean.”

Raviji added: “Hindi once linked the Pandits of Trinidad and Suriname until the 1970s. The Ramayan was a linguistic tool that linked the Caribbean. Ramayan was a common identity and Rama and Sita were the role models that moulded our character. Now with the decline of the Hindi language that communication has been lost. Now the contact is only with Guyana.

Photo : Geeta Vahini

“The Ramayan is a grand narrative in the Caribbean. The other being Colonialism. This civilizational trust of the Indians was captured by C. L. R. James. He said that before leaving for England the Indians were living in hovels, illiterate, tending to the animals and planting their crops. When James returned in the 1950s to work with the PNM he noted that Indians were now living in mansions and had entered the professions and remarked that he now understood that it was a community strategy to lift the next generation,” said Raviji,

The story of the Ramayan is a story of loss and triumph. Our ancestors were exiled from their homeland and found themselves toiling in a distant and hostile social environment. “The life of Bhadase Sagan Maraj and Seedass Sadhu of temple in the sea fame, are portrayal of that triumph. They have successfully taken challenges and odds and turn them around to success. For these reasons the HPK has evolved two awards: the Hindu Veer Award in memory of Bhadase Sagan Maraj and the Father of Hindu Caribbean Award in memory of Seedass Sadhu,” said Raviji.

Rennie Harry, a fire fighter, his wife Geeta, an HR Officer in the Public Service are two other parents on the trip. Their daughter Ishana and son Ish are part of the sixteen-member cast. Ishana will be playing the role of Sita and Ish will be portraying Hanuman and Dasarath. Rennie will be the stage manager.

Soan Ramnath, a long-standing member of the HPK sees this opportunity to take Trinidad Ramlila to India as a “privilege and the handiwork of the divine.” Saon’s wife, Vedawatie and their daughter Shanta are part of the troupe.

Twenty-one years old, Shanta is a Year 2 student at The UWI pursuing undergraduate studies in International Relations. She has been with Baal Ramlila since 2004. Shanta is assistant director and will be cast as Vibhishan and the Golden Deer. “I am grateful for the opportunity to go to India to perform Ramlila. I see myself as an ambassador of T&T.”

Prashanta Singh, 22, a second-year student pursuing studies in dental surgery at The UWI, is part of the cast. The holder of a black belt in karate and a classical Indian dancer, Prashanta represented Hindu Youth of the Caribbean in a Hindu Youth Conference in the US last year where she presented a paper on the Challenges Facing Caribbean Hindu Youths. She has been engaged in Bal Ramlila with the HPK for the past twelve years and will be cast as Madodhari, Kakaiye, Jataya and a satsanghi. “I am proud as a Caribbean Hindu to be going back to the land of my ancestors to show them the progress we have made so far.”

Devanan Ramsaran is another member of the Ramlila troupe. He is tasked with the role of narrator and would also play the role of Guru Vashista and Pandit Jodi. A law student in his final semester, Devanan has been involved in Baal Ramlila for the past 16 years. “I see this trip to India as one of the greatest opportunities in my life. I have grown up in Ramlila and it is the most consistent thing in my life,” said Devanan.

Geeta Ramsingh Vahini is assistant director and costume manager. “I feel that we are very ready and excited to share our unique Ramayan tradition with India. We are following the traditional maidani style opened air Ramlila with split performances and mime. We have rehearsed for more than 100 hours since November 2018,” Geetaji said.

Geetaji said that few of the costumes were created locally while others were imported. She was high in praise of the Jatayu costume that was created locally and described it as ‘fantastic.’ “The opening session will be a portrayal of the Ramayan coming to Trinidad and the recognition of the contribution of Tusidas. Much Hindi would be used and we shall not be translating all the chowpai and dohas.” Geetaji concluded.