Local Lives 10

The Children’s Ramayana
Photographs and story by Mark Lyndersay

A leela of love
What could possibly gather dozens of young children into a course of study during their August vacation and encourage them to commit to long days of rehearsal for a performance that would run for a total of 20 hours over six days?
Start with an amazing story, the tale of Lord Rama and his struggles to find his way back to his kingdom after tragic betrayals and battles against his nemesis Lord Ravan.

Then mix in music, from traditional songs to driving tassa taals, elaborate, gorgeous costuming, detailed makeup, dance, battles that range across a consecrated football field and moments of both planned and spontaneous humour and it’s possible to begin to understand the scale of the Bal Ramdilla.

This performance of the traditional Hindu Ramleela (literally song of Ram), is overseen by teachers and coaches at the Hindu Prachar Kendra, but is written, directed and performed by children, ranging in age from serious looking teenagers to mischievous youngsters lending a fidgety ear to their lessons as they look out for an opportunity to play.

This year’s performance marked a critical juncture for the Bal Ramdilla, now in its sixth year, as Kendra founder Ravi Ji formally handed over the responsibility for the Kendra to Geeta Ramsingh.
Ravindranath Maharaj, long known as a champion of involved Hindusim, took a decision in 2003 to work on involving school age children when interest in performing the work of Gosvami Tulsidas began to wane in Trinidad and Tobago.

This year, the first night’s leela performed by the Kendra told the story of how Tulsidas came to write the Ramacharitamanasa, known as the common man’s version of the Ramayana and the version that gave birth to the annual performance of Ramleela itself.
“It’s about culture, but not culture removed from life,” noted Ravi Ji. “The children like to perform and their parents like to see them perform, but I had to stop seeing it as a performance and begin to see it as a community and as a remarkable way to teach. This was something that was “caught” not taught, people would see it and learn it by repetition.”

The study of Ramleela is now encoded in courses taught at the UTT, but for the 63 children who staged it over six nights starting on September 28, it was the culmination of weeks of work, study and play in which they lived their religion.

Read Derek Walcott's 1992 Nobel Lecture, which meditates on a Ramleela in Felicity here...
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