IN 2005, India’s Ramleela was declared part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by UNESCO. It joined a list of traditions which includes kabuki and samba.
Our own iteration of this rich festival, the latest ten-day staging of which began Friday, is not only a bridge to India and our shared colonial history but it is also a re-affirmation of global values at a time of increasing insularity. We praise all who continue to work to keep Ramleela alive, to nurture it, and to spread it to more and more communities.
Ramleela, literally “Rama’s play”, is a performance of the Ramayana epic in a series of scenes that include song, narration, recital and dialogue. Indentureship may have brought this art form from the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh but Ramleela’s themes are universal. In the early days, Ramleela was performed under the shade of a tree and today there is still that emphasis on engaging as a community within the setting of green spaces and the natural environment.
The story of Ram’s life provides an array of valuable lessons and ideas such as the qualities of good sons and daughters, lovers, siblings, students, friends, citizens, and leaders.
Notably, the open-air theatre of Ramleela continues to draw large crowds even in a time of large cineplexes. The unique marriage of drama, costume, and poetry that each performance embodies still feels compelling even after decades. One of our Nobel Laureates Derek Walcott felt Ramleela embodied the potential of our melting pot society.
For him, the Ramleela at Felicity was, “like a dialect, a branch of its original language, an abridgment of it, but not a distortion or even a reduction of its epic scale.” This is probably part of the reason why Ramleela has been performed here for more than 172 years.
The festival's longevity has only come about because of much work. Ramleela has been developed over the years with support from organisations such as the National Ramleela Council of Trinidad and Tobago and the Ministry of Culture. Workshops on various aspects of the craft, ranging from drama to wire-bending, have helped pass on skills and traditions.
Luckily, performances are no longer confined to rural villages. They take place in schools and other institutions, in performing centres throughout Trinidad and Tobago such as NAPA and Queen’s Hall. This year’s drama will be staged in venues at Sangre Grande, Chaguanas, Aranjuez, Tarouba, Princes Town, Tunapuna, Fyzabad, Barrackpore, Rio Claro, Mayaro and Couva to name a few.
Ramleela is one of the rare religious festivals that can be enjoyed by believers and non-believers alike. It is art, yes, but it is also education. Its success helps foster increased levels of understanding. That’s something we could always use more of.