Knowing Indian traditional theatre: Ramleela


Ramleela is one of the most widely performed traditional art forms of north India. It is celebrated with much zeal and fervour in Uttar Pradesh and adjoining areas like Delhi, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and some other states as well. For Delhi, it is one of the biggest attractions and gains lot of media attention with televised Ramleela on the final day of Dussehra celebrations.

As literal in its name, it depicts the ‘leelas’ of Ram, which means a portrayal of Lord Ram’s life. The story is known to almost all of us as it is not only religious but also a part of India’s culture. The story is derived from Tulsidas’ Ram Charit Manas as well as Valmiki’s Ramayan.

The main language of Ramleela in the north India is Hindi and some of its variations as it travels to different states like Madhya Pardesh, Rajsthan, Bihar and Haryana.

In Indian traditional art forms, dance and music are very integral parts, however, with Ramleela, in its classic form, the dance is not so much prevalent. Music, although, is an integral part of it and is deeply attached to every scene whether as background score or part of the poetic recitation, songs or dohas.

The musical instruments used during the performance are the commonly used instruments from classical music that includes dholak, harmonium, flute and jhaal. Nowadays, electronic equipments are also used. Sound effects are generally produced with the help of computers.

The modern times haven’t had much effect on the makeup and costumes. Traditional and bright costumes are used as per characters’ requirements. There are no special things used in costumes. Makeup is minimalistic and natural. However, for larger productions, the makeup does become extensive to bring realism of portrayal.

It is generally performed in open space on a large platform during Dussehra. The village productions opt for small wooden stages made of planks and bamboos. It is not sophisticated at all. But, with bigger productions, like in Delhi’s Ramleela Maidan, the stage is quite large and robust as it gives a bigger area to the performers during war scenes.

Ramleela starts with invocation to the God. It is performed for a period of ten days. The performance takes place after sunset and goes on till the day’s events have been played out. The ten days have different parts of Ram’s story as it starts with Ram’s childhood and culminates in the killing of Ravana. Every single day has one major attraction to keep audience entertained.

Ravan Dahan in progress as a part of Ramleela finale

On Dussehra, the final day, the actors who are playing the parts of Ram and Lakshman use bow and arrow to shoot the giant Ravana (and several other demons) installations, often filled with fire crackers inside, that bursts out. It reminds the audience of the victory of good over evil as the huge Ravana falls burning to the ground.


Apart from the villages, it is seen losing its significance as the quality is dying down with less people interested in watching the lazy performances without any heart in it. It is a routine in places like Delhi where smaller residential societies have Ramleela committees which delivers pathetic performances.

It has hit such a low that the Ramleela has to borrow vulgar songs from Hindi films as well as local music albums on which the artists dance.

This makes the epic Ramayana just a trivial comedy show where the artists are ridiculed with their own performances.

But all is not lost. Ramleela still survives as an art form all around the world. Productions which have money to support themselves, who have sponsors and pay their artists good, have kept the art alive. They keep the audience in thrall when they perform the known story with conviction that brings catharsis and makes people believe the performances.

Ramleela is just not an art form, it is story of Ram, the greatest king in Hindu mythology who was ideal, just and righteous. He is known as Maryada Purushottam which literally mean ‘the Ideal Man.’ We can learn a lot from his life and the way he dealt with various situations in his life.

From India, Ramleela has travelled across the world with Indian migrants.

It is performed in nations which have Muslim majority, like Indonesia; Buddhist majority, like Thailand; Christian majority, Trinidad as well as Americas and Europe.

Indian diaspora feels connected to their roots with these mythological dramas which have been performed since the time our memory can look back.