I want to thank the National Ramleela Council for the hosting of a three-day virtual Ramleela on the 23, 24, and 25th October 2020. I never knew that Ramleela was such a huge project, embracing so many and such vast resources. Thanks to this virtual Ramleela I was able to fathom the depth and breadth of the planning and the organization involved in the execution of this street theater.
I was deeply thrilled to learn that there are 35 Ramleela venues to date, a phenomenal achievement indeed! I don’t know of any festival that is celebrated at so many venues for a period of nine days simultaneously across the land. Not even Carnival with the full backing of the National Carnival Commission, Ministry of Culture, several state and private enterprises can come close.
I was moved by the scholarship that is aligned with Ramleela. Three scholars- Dr. Primnath Gooptar, Rawle Gibbons and Dr. Sat Balkaransingh- have all researched and written extensively on Ramleela. Uniquely, these academics are involved in the re-enactment of the Ramleela at all stages in its production. Additionally, Dr. Primnath Gooptar, one of the pioneers of the Sangre Grande Ramleela, has produced a book titled Ramleela in Sangre Grande. Also, Rawle Gibbons, Director of the Creative Arts Center at The UWI, has incorporated Ramleela arts as an integral part of the curriculum at the Creative Arts Center. Dr. Sat Balkaransingh, a trained Indian classical dancer and founder/director of the Nyritanjali Dance Theater, has visited India as part of his research for his doctoral thesis. His research has successfully linked the local festival with the celebrations in north India, the home of our indentured ancestors.
This virtual Ramleela has revealed to me that there is a high degree of commitment and cooperation among the 35 Ramleela groups. Dr. Primnath Gooptar, the past president and co-founder of the Ramleela Council, was the chair of the first night. Rawle Gibbons also presented his views on Ramleela emphasizing the values to be derived from Ramleela. On the second night, Dr. Sat Balkaransingh made a very moving presentation making the connection with Ramleela celebrations in India and other parts of the diaspora.
The theme song of the NRCTT, played after the opening prayers, set the tone for the proceedings. I was heartened to learn that the theme song was the winner of a competition sponsored by the NRCTT and Pandit Beeshram Sewdath’s composition stood first. This theme song certainly captures the spirit of our Ramleela!
The several video presentations highlighting performances by several Ramleela groups revealed the efforts and the passion that the youths put into Ramleela. The middle-aged and the elderly have not vacated the stage but are still in the background to guide and counsel the enthusiastic youths. This was well demonstrated in the presentations of the two elders of the Cedar Hill Ramleela of Princes Town.
Ramleela has a depth of history. I learned that the Dow Village Ramleela had its genesis in 1881 and the herculean role of Butchoonsingh who provided the leadership to keep the celebration going year after year.
The Cedar Hill Ramleela is well integrated into the community. In addition to the donation of land for the Ramleela by the St Madeleine Estate, the Princes Town Regional Corporation has stepped forward to provide seating and other facilities for a comfortable viewing of the Ramleela. The linking of Cedar Hill Ramleela with the many more religious and social activities in the community is demonstrable of the maturity of the leadership in Ramleela.
Creativity is integral to Ramleela and this was well highlighted by Gowtam Maharaj of the Blue Bird Ramleela. Rama’s wedding procession along the streets with hundreds on tow to marry Sita was aimed at strengthening cooperation in the community.
I was happy to hear Ms Ramsubeik praising the organizers for their costumes. With increased dollars floating about during years of abundance, these lovers of Ramleela gladly employed their resources to enhance their performances.
Undoubtedly, Ramleela is among the leading festivals in the country and this is only possible because of the high level of cooperation. Since a large cast is required to execute Ramleela, this task would be impossible without cooperation and trust.
The unifying spirit of Ramleela has a global outreach. Practitioners of this theater know that they are engaged in a global stage, not for themselves but to glorify the name of Sri Ram. This global outreach was demonstrated in Trinidad when it hosted a Ramayana Conference several years ago. Scores of scholars from around the world assembled and delivered research papers on various aspects of Ramayana. For the first time, Indo-Trinidadians were coming face to face with non-Indian scholars sharing positive views on their ancient heritage.
Organizations in India that are dedicated to Ramleela have been host to Ramleela practitioners from Trinidad. A year ago, young performers from the Hindu Prachaar Kendra led by Geetaji performed at the Kumbha Mela in UP. The performance of the cast was exceptional, winning the love and admiration of all.
Several scholars, leaders, and practitioners of Ramleela, have seized the opportunity and visited India where they represented their community and country proudly. These trips have only helped to cement their commitment to the dharma.
Dr. Gooptar is currently inviting scholars to submit papers for an upcoming academic conference on Phagwa early next year. Such a conference will provide the necessary scholarship and perspective to better understand the significance of this festival. More so, by having scholars present academic papers on Phagwa, would lend some prestige to the festival and confirm in the minds of the organizers that they are engaged in something that is meaningful and valuable.
This application of scholarship to Indian culture has been absent over the years. Gratitude must be extended to academics like Primnath Gooptar and Sat Balkaransingh who have been organizers and practitioners of these aspects of our performing arts. The impact that this virtual conference has created, certainly confirms that when a few heads come together, much can be achieved. More so, that cultural practitioners have the capacity to evolve their scholarship in the performing arts, no longer at the mercy of colonial academics.
Last but not least, a virtual Ramleela cannot be achieved without experts in the field of IT and for this, the efforts of Dinesh Arjun must be commended. The entire three days of video presentations and other activities including speeches were executed without any glitches. Virtual Ramleela was certainly a proud moment for me at least!