This Ram Leela is not backed by Bollywood. Yet, rendition of the epic Ramayana and the religious fervour associated with it makes this traditional form a hit with the masses, rising costs and thinning crowds notwithstanding.
Charansingh Rajput, who has been organising Ram Leela in Khokhra for many decades, said the entire event is funded by charity. “It costs us about Rs2.5 lakh to host the Ram Leela for the nine days of Navratri ending in Ravan Dahan. But a majority of the expenses are borne by donations from the devout. There are people donating for food, for the performing artistes to set up the stage and lights, etc,” said Rajput.
A Ram Leela involves close to 20 people, including the artistes, who chip in for everything, including setting up the stage and lighting. “Some people also volunteer to help. But, most of the work gets done by the entire team,” said Rajput.
Incidentally, the artistes have been performing for so long that they know their recitals by heart and hence do not even bother about rehearsals.
The team is not permanent as artistes come and go. Exceptionally good artistes even get invited from other cities. The Khokhra Ram Leela is usually performed by artistes from Bhopal and Uttar Pradesh. Each artiste is given a role and he sticks to it. For instance, one who plays Sita would do so in every Ram Leela he takes part in. This would ensure that his recitals and dialogues are the same thus negating the need for rehearsals. This also means that any new but experienced artiste can be introduced in a team without having to go through the rigmarole of rehearsals all over again.
“We cover the entire Ramayan in eight days. The story and the characters remain the same and the actors are experienced. Hence, we do not need to waste time on rehearsals,” said Rajput.
He, however, admitted that a majority of the audience for his performance belong to the lower middle class. He also said that there has been a steady decline in crowds compared to the previous years. “We still get enough number of audiences. But they are not like the olden days.
Earlier, when Ahmedabad had several mills, these Ram Leelas were patronised by mill workers.
Now, with the mills gone and the labourers working long hours, there has been a dip in audience.
But because there is no entry fee, we continue to get audience,” said Rajput.
During the off-season, he said, the artistes continue to perform Ram Leela in villages, mostly outside Gujarat. Essentially a north Indian tradition, it has been patronised by this state for long.
Rajput also admitted that a large number of the audience is made up of migrants from the northern states.