Last week I had a moment of enlightenment while doing some reading around site specific theatre. Actually it was more of Homer Simpson ‘duh’ moment. We tend to view site specific/responsive theatre as something new, simply because of its huge and growing popularity. This was my Homer moment, the realisation that of course it has been around in one form or another for hundreds of years, both in the East and the West.
One site specific performance that is almost 200 years old is the Ramlila of Ramnagar performed in Varanasi, India every year. It was started in 1830 by the Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh and is a theatrical portrayal of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Ramlila or Ram Leela (which means, literally, Rama’s story) take place all over India, but the one in Ramnagar is an epic in its own right. It lasts 31 days and takes place over an area of almost 8 square kilometres – basically the city is turned into an open-air set. It is steeped in tradition – characters are played by local actors and major roles are often inherited by families, a good example being, the role of Ravana which was held by same family from 1835 to 1990. It is reckoned that over 1 million people come to watch the spectacle every year. What interested and heartened me was that the ‘audience’ are indeed pilgrims. Very few foreign visitors are amongst the spectators as Ramnagar currently has no real tourist infrastructure. It wasn’t until 2013 that it was officially allowed to be documented on film.
There are many Ramlila that take place across India, particularly in the North, but they generally last 10 days. Like Kabuki in Japan, Khmer Shadow Theatre in Cambodia, Commedia dell’arte in Europe and many performance traditions across the world, Ramlila is recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity:
There are two excellent articles which are worth reading if you’d like to know more. The first is by Richard Schechner, a professor of performance studies at New York University. Written for the The New York Times, A Maharajah´s Festival for Body and Soul is an excellent insight to the Ramlila of Ramnagar and details the potential problems that face it in the 21st Century. The other, equally as informative, is by Saudamini Jain for the Hindustan Times, entitled A look at the grandest Ramlila in the world.
Another interesting online source comes from ZeeNews and is about the Dussehra Festival during which the Ramlila takes place.
In his Introduction to Theatre in India, David Mason, Associate Professor of Theatre, Rhodes College draws the parallels between the Ramlila and the liturgical dramas and passion plays of Medieval Europe. This ties in with my opening paragraph to this post, as one of the traditions I realised was effectively site-specific is the Oberammergau Passion Play which is performed every 10 years by the inhabitants of the village of Oberammergau, Germany and been done so since 1634.
One more excellent resource that I have come across is The Ram Lila by Norvin Hein. Very detailed and clearly part of a larger work, although I cannot attribute it beyond that.
So there you have it – my ‘duh’ moment has left me a wiser person.