Part 3: Staging Ramlila in Tihar

Published: April 1, 2018 - 18:49 Updated: April 3, 2018 - 16:48

In the third part of this four-part series, Farooqui delves into the lives of his Ramlila mandali in Tihar as he talks about the numerous challenges encountered in the process.

IN COMMON WITH many of my secular Muslim friends, I have long been proud of my knowledge of Hinduism. But I have not often had the compliment returned. In fact, I have sometimes been exasperated by the ignorance of my Muslim-friendly non-Muslim friends about some of the most basic practices of Islam. Perhaps they practise agnostic secularism. On almost every Eid, I have to explain to them whether this is a ‘meethi’ Eid or the mutton Eid and why. Forget about them knowing what is shab-e-barat or barawafat or Muharram. My exasperation has an ancient heredity. Al-Beruni, one of the most gifted travellers to India, was flummoxed by the Brahmins’ staunch reluctance to understand his religion or to share the knowledge of theirs. In the 18th century, the scholar and, to rehabilitate a misused word, Indologist, Ibrahim Khairabadi, while writing about Hinduism railed against his Brahmin informers by saying, “I know so much about your religion but what do you know about mine?”

I was delighted therefore when my fledgling drama group in Tihar suggested that come October we put up Ramlila in prison. This was after Court Martial’s heartwarming success. There were, as it happened, only three weeks to go for Vijaya Dashami, which meant that Ramlila performance would have to start in a mere 10 days’ time. The time was too short but the class was very enthusiastic. Most had grown up on Ramlila performances, some had been part of their muhalla organising committees although none had ever appeared on stage.

I had seen Ramanand Sagar’s Ramlila on Doordarshan as a child. In addition, I had adapted a Dastangoi presentation from AK Ramanujan’s brilliant essay Three Hundred Ramayanas for which I had mined Persian and Urdu sources too. However, my actual experience of watching Ramlilas was limited. I had attended the sanitised dance-drama put up every year by Sriram Bhartiya Kala Kendra in Delhi and had been to the Ralmila Maidan on a couple of occasions but I had missed Ramlila performances during my growing up years in Gorakhpur. Still, I thought I knew the epic so I started with some assurance. But the challenge was to decide where and how to begin?

Basantlal, who was at 58 the oldest member of our class, had watched innumerable Ramlilas in his life. He had a consensual affair with his friend’s adult daughter which had unraveled and he was now in prison facing a charge of rape. Ironically, the girl who had been the cause of his incarceration was a friend of his daughter’s, yet it was his daughter who was his most consistent visitor in jail. He could not read or write but had played an English-speaking Colonel in Court Martial with some elan. It helped that he sported a Colonel’s moustache in real life. He had spent nearly 40 years in Delhi and had been an auto-driver, a contractor, a local leader and a farmer by turns.

To begin with, Basantlal started rattling off episodes which he said was indispensable to any staging of Ramlila. We have to have the Shravan Kumar vadh episode which brings a curse of childlessness to Dashrath. Then we must have the Maricha deer chase and Sita-Lakhsman samvad and Sita-Haran episode in the forest, then the Hanuman-Angad face off, followed by the Jatayu scene, the Indrajeet-Lakshman sangram and so on and so forth. I felt my confidence shake a little before this knowledge. But I learnt that there are set episodes which we must adopt.

Then help came from Shammi, a young man from Hauz Khas Village who was a news buff, and someone we could approach to know the fate of latest film releases. He said that his brother had been part of the Hauz Khas village Ramlila organising committee and so, he could ask him to help with costumes and a script they could use. Shammi was in for murder, along with three of his cousins. They ran a gym there and were quite well to do but an unpremeditated spat and brawl one late night at ISBT had resulted in an accidental death and now all of them were inside. Before he landed in jail he was working as an aide to a well-known politician of the area. But their wealth or connections did not prove to be of much use.

Another enthusiast was Shukla, an earnest young man from Bareli who was in jail for committing a debit card fraud. Like many other Brahmins from North India’s small towns, he had a natural and enviable knowledge of scriptures. He narrated the Ramlila episodes that his grandfather had recited to him as a child. Shukla’s grandfather was an upright and simple school teacher and he rued the infamy he had brought on his Pilibhit-based poor but genteel parivar (family). 

He joined the Drama Class within a month of his incarceration so his entire jail stint was a highly unusual experience — essentially he came to the jail to do yoga, meditation and drama, none of which he had really practised before. He also became quite adept at fashioning things from goods lying around the jail. He would access the hospital and smuggle thermocol boxes to make swords or blocks. He made excellent bows and arrows from palm leaves.

Dinesh Sharma, one of my earliest actors and an MA in Hindi, was one of the few truly educated persons I had in my troupe. For instance, he had heard of both Einstein and Napolean and he knew the names of famous Hindi writers and some non-Hindi ones too. He was a Modi-bhakta but we bonded over Shiva-bhakti. Like many other educated Hindus, he was not a big fan of Ramlila performances although he recited the Ramcharit Manas almost every day. Sharma was doing time for a deal gone wrong. He was running a sub-agency from Sahara and when the latter defaulted he had been sent to prison. He spent nearly three years there without having his charges framed and was eventually bailed out. Everyday he spent nearly two to three hours doing dhyan-sadhna each morning and evening. He was the original Yoga teacher who roped Shukla in and taught him some basics.

A person named Bhanu said there was a person in his ward who had done many Ramlilas. So that evening we trooped over to his ward. The moment we mentioned Ramlila, a large number of inmates lined up, instantly enthused. One chap, who was simply called Balli, showed us his portrayal of Jatayu, as he had learnt from acting in Ramlilas. He literally sailed like a bird, making great quacking noises which enthralled the entire ward. Then he showed us the death of Jatayu and the spasms, the pain, the reality of the death were moving. Suddenly, a young boy, who like street children across the world looked prematurely old, emerged and was introduced as cheel, Urdu for Eagle. Cheel immediately began to gyrate as Surpanakha. He claimed to have worked in many troupes and specialised in ladies’ dance, he said. His big hit role was playing an apsara in Ravan’s darbar (court). In tune with the great traditions of the Parsi theatre, Cheel always addressed me as Ustadji, which made me feel hallowed. Then Virender-Nirmal, who was eventually to play Sita, took me aside to introduce me to another man who was also called Virender.

There were many Virenders in Jail no 3 as were there many Vijays and Vikases and Gauravs and Dipaks. Inmates are assigned to different jails of Tihar according to the first alphabets of your name, known as the Rashi system within the precincts of the prison. So to distinguish one Virender from another, our father’s name was always tagged to our name. I was always, therefore, called out as Mahmood-Mahboob or as Farooqui-Rehman. It was initially very distressing to hear my pious and honourable father’s name being bandied about in such an ignominious manner, especially since I had lost him during the course of the trial. But one day my friend, Ikhlaq-Umar, said that another way of looking at it was that your father’s name was bringing its barkat to this benighted space, and I consoled myself with that. The kind of names inmates have at Tihar — the Sunils, the Vijays the Gopals the Jahids and Majars — are a succinct indicator of their social origins. Most belong to the lower middle classes, are mostly uneducated and hail from mohallas in Delhi that I had known nothing about. Areas like Seelampuri, Mustafabad, Jafrabad, Nangloi, Burari, Peeragarhi, Mundka are the places known about in jail. Very few there have heard of Maharani Bagh or Golf Links, and concomitantly their own names are equally modest and in a sense old-fashioned. It was in Tihar that I realised that the only knowledge that truly matters is of trees, birds and scriptures.


A person named Bhanu said there was a person in his ward who had done many Ramlilas. So that evening we trooped over to his ward. The moment we mentioned Ramlila, a large number of inmates lined up, instantly enthused. One chap, who was simply called Balli, showed us his portrayal of Jatayu, as he had learnt from acting in Ramlilas


Anyway this Virender Nirmal was in jail for kidnapping. He could just about read or write but had stumped me when he first met me by saying that he had dreamt of sending his children to study at Oxford University. He had helped his friend kidnap his girlfriend, it was said. It consisted of the putative boyfriend and girlfriend roaming all over the city on rides of varying modes at the end of which the girl was handed over to the father. Virender’s friend was never arrested but he himself had already spent over three years in jail. His poor and hapless mother would trudge from Sahranpur twice a month to meet him and he tried to support her by doing odd jobs for other inmates — washing their dishes or clothes. One of the simplest and most sincere persons I have met in my life, Virender was too shy but he grew to become an accomplished comic actor. He introduced me to this other Virender who worked in the PWD panja as a mason. He recited a few dialogues to me from memory and said I must try and get hold of Jaswant Singh’s Ramayana because it had fantastic Ghazals! I was a little taken aback at the importance of Ghazals in a Ramlila performance. Virender himself said he would take no part in our Ramlila because six years in Tihar had sapped his brains and he had no creative juices left. We also found other inmates who had some knowledge of Ramlila but weren’t willing to step on stage. The munshi of the legal cell, Virender Beliram, had acted in many Ramlilas but he limited his participation to helping us with the style of delivery required by Ramlila. On the day of the show, he was of great help when he veritably transformed our actors with really limited material.

So, now that we roughly knew some of the episodes, we would perform. But we still had to write dialogues for those scenes. And dialogues, as anybody who has seen Ramilila knows, are the essence of Ramlila. They must be flowery, they must rhyme and they must have a punch, like shayari, that makes the audience laugh. Bachhu Singh from the Art class, a big burly man and in appearance the stereotype of a ‘bad man,’ strongly suggested that we get hold of what he called a script. He laughed at my dialogues and said you need a special writing style to create punches. So, we had to get a script.

I started the Ramlila rehearsals with my band of sinners. And they were all kinds. Even as we searched for a script and fixed the episodes, Sharma led us on to the floor with some Ramlila songs that he remembered. And this was the other key thing about Ramlila — that it was a musical. The word used for a Ramlila troupe, even today, is mandli, which also denotes a music band. It needed lots of songs and lots of dancers but of course we had no women in our jail. The few male dancers were interested more in Bollywood numbers than in Ramlila. The prefatory lines to the song with which we began our Ramlila harks back to the colonial times in which it was written:

Leela Raghubar ki Likhan, Aaye do Sardar

Hath Jor vinti karein sab jan barambar

Shri Ram Chandra ki jai bolo, Shobha manharan raseela hai

Bhakton mat swang samajh lena ye ramchandra ki leela hai

Shri Ramchand Ramayan ke, aage baithe sab bhai hain

Aage baithe sab bhai hain

Biri cigret tambaku ke peene ki sakht manahi hai

Ab leela prarambh hoti hai bharat wasi aankhen kholo

Bharat wasi aankhein kholo

Sab ek baar phir mil jul kar Shri Ramchand ki jai bolo

Shri Ram Chand ki jai bolo

Siawar Ramchand ki Jai

I was particularly struck by the fourth line of this song, don’t treat this as a swang, this is Ramchandra’s leela. Leela is a word used more to describe Krishna’s antics because of the association of sport, playacting, playmaking, merrymaking and carnality with the word and which defines his cult. Andswang, like rahasya, was a tableau or a spectacle where the participants dressed up to portray one of Krishna’s acts or play. While researching Dastangoi, I had come across many references to swang in 18th century Urdu poetry. It was a prominent part of the North Indian performance landscape in the pre-colonial era. The line could only make sense in a context where Ramlila enthusiasts were trying to wean spectators away from Krishna’s swang in a competitive religious pageantry market. The story goes, as told to me by Sharma, that when Vishnu was asked by the Gods to take rebirth as Krishna, he politely declined because in his avatar as Rama he had undergone so much suffering and hardship that he was averse to coming down to the earth again. It was then promised to him that in this birth as Krishna, he would be the epitome not of Yoga but of Bhoga, where indulgence and not abstinence would be his hallmark and only then did he agree.

I got Shukla and Sharma to begin pouring over the Ramayanas that were available in the library but it was so protean that we didn’t know what to select from it. Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas, the 16th century Awadhi reworking of the Ramayana, was too difficult and the actual Ramayana provided no help with the dialogues. Ramcharitmanas, while celebrated as a living religious text, is rarely performed. It became clear to me then that Ramayana, the epic, and Ramlila, the performance form, diverge considerably.

A couple of days of mainly directionless rehearsals later, our Superintendent and the warder of IGNOU, Rakesh Dagar, turned up with a Ramlila book. It was the Radheshyam Kathavachak version — a thick hardback, running into over 600 pages, all in verse. In difficult verse, I may add. To get our actors to memorise those lines would be a task, I wondered. It takes a lot of skill to deliver rhymed prose or verse as dialogue, a skill that Shakespearean actors and Indian Marsiyagos achieve after years of training. Virender Beliram showed us the correct style of reciting those versified dialogues and it required a degree of sophistication in handling the spoken word which was beyond my actors’ ken. Our modern actors could learn much from Beliram in this regard. But at least we had the episodes before us. A couple of days later, Shammi’s brother brought us Raghunandan Singh Sahir’s Ramlila which was much more to our liking. It had dialogues, or rather diaalaag, in the classic filmy Rajkumar style. Ravana’s darbar was introduced, in a trope we recognise from the depiction of villains in Hindi cinema, with what can only be described as mujra, where lecherous men, Ravana’s sons and brothers, ogle, inveigle and catcall the dancer.

During the Selection of the episodes, I realised the importance of Lakshmana in the performed version of the epic, as also of Indrajeet-Meghnad Ravana’s son. Lakshman is hot-headed and harsh with his words. He is every inch an angry young man and his short-temper ignites many fuses in Ramlila. I had no idea for instance that when Lakshmana is hesitant to go after Ravana after he has disappeared chasing the Maricha deer, Sita taunts Lakshmana by saying that he in fact has designs on Sita and is therefore reluctant to help his brother. At that time I was also not familiar with our pioneering 19th century Bengali English poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Meghnadh Vadh Kavya, where Meghnadh is the real hero. After Dutt wrote the part where Megnadh is killed in battle by Lakshman, he wrote to the other great Bengali reformer, Ishwarchand Vidyasagar, “My dear Vid, I killed my beloved Inderjeet today. I shed many a tear. But for the gods, he would have kicked Rama and his rabble into the sea.” Indeed he would have.

Given the paucity of time, there was no way we could have performed the entire Ramlila over 10 days, even if the authorities had agreed to let us do it. So we decided to perform only one show, on the 10th day. The episodes we selected began with Sita-Swamyavar where Ravana is worsted by Parshurama’s bow, leading to Rama’s marriage. Then skipping the various machinations, Manthra, Kaikeyi etc., which led to his exile, we jumped straight to the Marich deer episode, the Lakshman Rekha portion and the abduction of Sita by Ravana. From there to Jatayu, thence to Shabri and the meeting with Sugriva and the introduction of Hanumana. Hanuman’s entry is one of the highlights of the play but we didn’t have the technical resources, the ‘effects’ to show his grand entry. So I had him jump over the bent backs of a few vanars from behind a pretend tree. After that we jumped straight to the Ashok-vatika scene where Hanuman meets Sita and thence straight to the war itself.

The Raghunandan Singh Sahir’s Ramlila that we were using as a reference was written in a style of Hindi which can only be called Urduised. This was a far cry from the Sanskritised Hindi that Ramanand Sagar, himself an Urdu writer of note, employed in his TV show Ramayana. It is not surprising because the main language of the Parsi theatre, from which modern Ramlila derives its roots, was largely Urdu. This book, as also scores of other Ramayanas composed in Urdu, shared many tropes with Parsi theatre performances. Long, rhyming and bombastic dialogues, copious use of poetry, music and shayari and technical effects such as drop curtain, scene change, painted backdrops etc. In fact, shayari, which in essence means Urdu shayari, is a very integral part of Ramlila performance. The musical interludes, which are plentiful, have their tunes or tarz pointed out in the text: this should be in tep or keherwa or on the tarz of a song such as, in one instance, the tune was based on Sehgal’s Gham diye mustaqil. You might think that given the divine nature of some of the figures, their language might be exalted but as a matter of fact all speak a language that can only be called romantic. In fact, the Ramlila, which is a romance in the medieval sense of the term, is best played in the romantic style of the black and white era. Anything and everything is permissible in Ramlila performances. It is a protean form where all our performance forms merge into a colourful pageant and the sacred and the profane mix in one long bust of song and dance. It remains popular because of its ability to absorb different, even contradictory strains of performances. Ghazals, bhajans, long nazms, even bahr-e taweel nazms which have very long hemistiches, dadra, tappa, thumri — all sorts of musical notes are played during a performance.


The musical interludes, which are plentiful, have their tunes or tarz pointed out in the text: this should be in tep or keherwa or on the tarz of a song such as, in one instance, the tune was based on Sehgal’s Gham diye mustaqil. You might think that given the divine nature of some of the figures, their language might be exalted but as a matter of fact all speak a language that can only be called romantic

For an actor, the big draw in Ramlila is to play Ravana. I cast Bhanu, mentioned above as Ravana. A tall and strapping young man, Bhanu could dance, sing, mimic and playact with supreme confidence. He was the Munshi of my ward when I had first been imprisoned and I was in fact intimidated by his stature: big man with a booming baritone who could scare newcomers simply by shouting at them. But as I later learnt, his size hid the sweetest of temperaments. He had apprenticed as a photographer in North Delhi’s famous Sagar studios and had been able to set up his own small studio in Burari as a wedding photographer. At one such wedding, he and his team had a spat with the videographer of the groom’s family and an accidental fall had resulted in a death. All three of them were now in jail for murder. As he worked with me, Bhanu grew to be an actor and a performer of impressive talent and is still running the Drama Club after my exit. All the work I did inside owes much to his talent, dedication and sincerity and I am deeply grateful to him.

I began the Ramlila with Bhanu reciting Ravana’s magnificent Shiv Strotam which I once knew by heart. Basantlal played Kumbhkaran and he brought the house down when he demanded, after being awaken from his slumber, meat meat and more meat (in a purely vegetarian gaol) and shouted that if there is a shortage of booze, get it from the superintendent’s office. Bijnesh Lal, whose entire family, including his wife, his brother and sister in law, was facing charges of rape and abduction, performed the mujra in Ravana’s durbar. Virender played Sita and evoked lusty cheers as he broke into a dirge in the Ashoka vatika. Dharmendra played Lakshmana and Shammi was Meghnad.

The Superintendent expressed his inability to hire a sound system but suggested that we hang the mikes from ropes as he had seen in his childhood Ramlilas in a Haryana village. We did that and it really worked. There were budgetary issues so some members of the cast volunteered to defray the expenses for the costumes which were procured by Shammi’s brother. Some members of the music team pitched in with musical support but I used mainly the dholak and the harmonium, the instrument which in a sense was invented for the South Asian devotional music. We had an enormous shortage of personnel to make up the Vanar Sena, Ram Sena and Ravana Sena, so five or six boys doubled up for all three. There were many mishaps in the final staging, some genuine Jane Bhi Do Yaron moments but the mood carried everybody along. The actual staging was a huge triumph because the audience, like with oral epic performances the world over, already knew the epic and so their gratification included many layers of approval. The cheers were loud and lusty even though we had to truncate the performance a little as it had dragged on for nearly three hours and it was nearing 6 pm, the hour when potable water comes to the wards for 20 minutes which is understandably every body’s lifeline.

There is, of course, much to be learnt from the Ramayana and it is unfortunate that its only discussion in our public life happens from quarters which are contentious. Ramayana strives towards harmony in society, there can be no stridence in leaning towards it. As I learnt during my summarised reading of modern Indonesian history, its nationalist leaders often resorted to imagery from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana to escape the Dutch censors during their anti-colonial struggle. It is true that Mahatma Gandhi made public reliance on Ram Bhakti and the Gita an important part of his political practice. Sadly, that legacy has not borne much fruit after him. Perhaps we need to re-imagine our relationship with this great epic, as text and performance.

Ramlila is preceded by Navratra. I was struck by the number of inmates, including my cast who observed this difficult festival loyally. One member of my group spent the entire nine days lasting only on one single laung and a glass of water in the course of 24 hours. Sharma always fasted on Mondays and only allowed himself some milk in the evening. Many inmates in Tihar were vegetarian, a substantial number did not even eat eggs. I was forever surprised by the fact that hungry and famished inmates would refuse something as delicious as cake — jail made of course, no outside food item is allowed — because it contained eggs. I also appreciated other rituals, like setting aside a portion of your food for the elements before eating or the constant tending to the Tulsi plants and also the number of inmates who would feed ants and birds. Indeed, even if it is ritualistic, there is great attention to nature in popular Hindu worship and it is a good thing indeed. I also liked the fact that bath and purification should be followed by puja in the morning and in the evening, sadhna and sandhya puja. Many kept the Tuesday fast for Hanumanji. It is not for nothing that inmates revere the Hanuman Chalisa for it has this memorable line:

Jo sat baar path karai koi

Chhutahi bandi mahasukh hoi

I, too, memorised the Chalisa and recited it many hundreds of times over so that it would bring me my release sooner. Of course my vaunted knowledge of Hinduism was deeply humbled by this interaction with everyday practising Hindus. Tihar is generally free of ethnic conflicts and is in many senses a model of communal amity. Every ward has a designated space for Namaz, Christians-Africans mostly conduct their own makeshift church every Sunday, and there is also a Gurdwara service once a week. But of course neither Hindu nor Muslim religious priests offer much charity or counselling or service. Like in the rest of India, that real job is performed by Christian missionaries. Prisoners, as Oscar Wilde says, have been thrust out from the world’s heart and God’s care, but still what else might they do but pray to God after being shunned by the world. As Wilde says again,

What would human pity do

Pent up in murderer’s hole

What words of grace in such a place

Could help a brother’s soul

Indeed prayer is the last resort of the condemned and the damned and does provide some solace even in the darkest of places. And theatre too, after all, is an offering.


Read the other parts of this series:

Part 1: How Tihar's first-ever Drama Club came into being?

Part 2: Setting the stage in Tihar

Part 4: Using theatre as therapy in Tihar

The author is a writer and director who is credited with the revival of Dastangoi, a 16th-century Urdu oral storytelling art form. He has also co-directed a critically acclaimed movie on farmers suicides in 2010, Peepli Live.

Read more stories by Mahmood Farooqui