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The Influence of Indian Cinema in the Ramleela of Trinidad with particular reference to the Sangre Grande Ramleela

By Dr. Primnath Gooptar

Ramleela was brought to Trinidad by the Indian indentured immigrants who came to the country during the period 1845- 1917. During that time 147,592 Indians, 85% of them Hindus, from areas such as Bihar, Bengal, United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh) and Madras were brought to the colony. The majority of the Girmityas (agreement signers), one out of every five, chose to make Trinidad their home and today their off-springs make up 35 percent of the population of 1.3 million. They refashioned likenesses of the civilization they had left behind by practicing their culture through songs, music, dances, dress and other cultural traditions first, on the sugar estates and later in their settlement villages. Their persistence in keeping alive their inherited customs in their new land and their desire to pass it on from one generation to the next resulted in a constant fusion of many of their traditions with local influences. In the process, certain aspects of their ancestry, such as the Ramleela, were modified to suit their new surroundings. Largely this has made the Trinidad Ramleela a unique blend of East and West.

Settling into a new environment and keeping Ramleela alive posed severe challenges for the East Indians as there were no “shop” costumes or ready-made crowns available. Costumes and other paraphernalia that were used for Ramleela were constructed from local material found in the environment in which they lived. Bows, arrows and swords were made from vines and sticks and there was a natural look to the weapons. Crowns were made from small twigs and sturdy leaves held together by Mamoo (vines), [1] with wild flowers tucked into them for beauty. In those early days, in the hinterlands, they used whatever was readily available to embellish their appearances in Ramleela and so they used the soot from the chulha (fireside) to smear their faces to look like demons and the red paste from roukou, a local fruit, to decorate their faces and bodies. [2]  Characters dressed in their best clothing available.  Sita’s jewels were made from vines, sticks and colored leaves, although in some communities, the women loaned jewels they had brought from India. All players in the Ramleela were males.

Since, on the estates and roadways, the playing arena was generally limited in size, there was no demarcation of space for players and audience. Often, the audience mingled with the players in the playing area. [3] There was always a narrator or storyteller who guided the players through the presentation, and he was often to be found among the players directing them while narrating as there were no microphones for the narrator.

  The women assisted by rendering suitable folk songs and bhajans as the scenes demanded. For example, at the birth of Rama, they sang appropriate songs to commemorate the occasion. As the Ramleela evolved on local soil local Indian classical singers and bhajan groups provided musical entertainment either before or after the drama and rendered appropriate songs during the drama sequence as required by the narrator.

Much of what was portrayed in their early Ramleelas was derived from memory cumulatively culled together from among the indentured immigrants. Some people composed verses on the spot for the festival. Since much of what was portrayed as Ramleela in the early days of Indian indentureship in Trinidad were contextualized from memory, there were many misrepresentations and errors in their presentations, but over time, with the arrival of books and knowledgeable persons from India on the subject matter, many such inaccuracies were rectified.[4] 

Another significant influence on the Trinidad Ramleela was the impact of Indian movies on Ramleela after its introduction in 1935. Because of the pervasive use of Hindu religious texts, particularly the Ramayan and their associated events in Trinidad such as Ramleela, local Indian movie fans found no difficulty in identifying with Indian religious movies and their themes.

The average Indian movie fan in Trinidad found it easy to identify with those mythological movies that were released in Trinidad because of the commonalities that existed in both societies. Many early Indian films were based on dramas such as Ramleela, Krishnaleela (Story of Krishna), Rasleela and Raja Harischandra dance and those movies provided filmi validation of those traditions.

The impact of the ascendancy of filmi music in Trinidad was also encountered in the Ramleela festival, which has been traditionally celebrated in this country continuously since 1881 in the form of open-air communal drama presentations.[5] Until the 1990s, Ramleela groups in the country had kept their celebrations mostly traditional with their attendant ritual inputs. However, after the 1990s, some Ramleela groups incorporated religious film songs as part of their presentations to enhance particular scenes in the drama. For example, at the Sangre Grande Ramleela, commencing in 1991, numerous film songs were incorporated into the Ramleela presentation during the last two decades.

In addition, several other  Indian movies have given Hindus in Trinidad filmi bhajans for almost every occasion on the Hindu calendar including Shiv Raatri (Night of Lord Shiva), Raksha Bandhan (Sacred Bond), Hanuman Jayanti (Birth of Hanuman), Guru Jayanti (Guru’s Birthday), Raam Janam (Birth of Lord Rama), Krishna Janam (Birth of Lord Krishna) and Ramleela. All the Indian formatted radio stations, mainly Radio Jaagriti, Akaash Vani 106.5 FM, 90.5 FM, Heritage Radio, and Shakti Radio  also played relevant filmi bhajans  for such occasions

The Ramleela script was taken from the Ramayan and was portrayed for nine days. One of the scenes portrayed at the Sangre Grande Ramleela celebration each year was the banishment of Raam to the forest for fourteen years. During the enactment of that scene, the filmi Bhajan-Chor Chale (Come Let Us Go) from the film Raamaayan (1960) was played in the background with significant effect to dramatize the scene. In another scene, a nonreligious filmi song Doli Chadh Ke Dulhan Sasural Chali (The Wedding Procession will go to the In-Laws’ Home) from the film Doli (1969, Wedding Procession) was played during the marriage of Rama and Sita. In addition, Babul Ki Duayein Leti Jaa (A Father’s Prayer for Blessings for His Daughter) from Neel Kamal (1968, Blue Lotus) was also played for that wedding scene. Those songs were reminiscent of what usually obtained at Hindu weddings in Trinidad. In another Ramleela scene that encapsulated the cremation of King Dasrath, the sad but moving song Pinjare ke panchi (A Caged Bird) from the film Nastik was played. This particular song brought tears to the eyes of many of the players and members of the audience. In another Ramleela sequence called Sarwan Kumar in which a young boy took his parents through the forest on baskets hung from his shoulders, the song Kandhe pe Kaavar (Load on the Shoulders) from the film Sarwan Kumar (Name of Person) was played to accompany the scene.

There were many other instances in the Ramleela presentations at Sangre Grande, Rio Claro, Frederick Settlement (Caroni), Pierre Road (Felicity) and Tunapuna venues where filmi songs, both religious and nonreligious, were used to embellish the presentations. At the Sangre Grande venue, dances were also used during the drama presentation to enhance the production. In addition to the Sangre Grande venue, at other venues such as Tunapuna, Rio Claro, Frederick Settlement in Caroni and Pierre Road in Felicity, dances were used to punctuate the presentation of the Ramleela, much in the same way as dances were used as inserts in Indian movies. In most instances, those dances did not form an integral part of the Ramleela presentation but were used as inserts for audience entertainment and to give the players and the narrator some breathing space. On any given evening at the Ramleela venues mentioned above, there were as many as five dances performed by community groups as inserts in the Ramleela presentations with only one dance being relevant to the play.

In 2010 during the Ramleela presentation in Sangre Grande, at least thirty dance items were counted over eleven days of which twenty-two dances were performed to the accompaniment of nonreligious film songs while the other eight dances were done to the accompaniment of religious film songs. At a similar Ramleela presentation put on by the St. Augustine Ramleela Committee in 2011, fifteen dances were performed by local community dance groups, all of which used film songs as an accompaniment to the dances in which eleven songs were nonreligious film songs. At Frederick Settlement in 2009, the situation was similar where the audience witnessed several filmi-based dance items presented during the Ramleela presentation. Also, on the eleventh day of the Ramleela at Sangre Grande when Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya and is crowned king an hour-long program of songs and dances follows the event to celebrate the coronation of King Rama. Most of the songs and dances in that cultural program were of filmi origins.

These trends were a drastic change from earlier presentations of Ramleela in Trinidad in the pre-1940s when classical music and songs were used to fill interludes and accompany scenes that required musical accompaniment.[6] In addition, some of the Ramleela groups used the musical score from Ramanand Sagar’s television serial Ramayan as background music for some scenes in the Ramleela presentation, and excerpts from the serial were also used for training participants in acting for the Ramleela presentation. Organizers such as Pandit Bhownath Maraj of the Sangre Grande Ramleela indicated that they also used the serial for inspiration in terms of the singing, costumes, props, make-up, fight scenes and other areas of relevance. Other Indian films that were used for similar purposes included Sampooran Ramayan (1961Complete Ramayan), Raam Bharat Milaap (Meeting of Raam and Bharat) and Hanuman.

This infiltration of the sacred Ramleela play by religious and nonreligious filmi songs illustrated the all-pervasive and all-encompassing characteristics of Hindi films and Hindi film songs and their popularity in Trinidad. While most people, particularly the younger ones, appreciated and welcomed the filmi interpolations in the Ramleela arena, some of the older folk expressed the fear that the filmi aspects that were introduced in the Ramleela would eventually destroy the religiousness or sanctity of the Ramleela. A few older pundits and elders in the community felt that the film songs were destroying the purity and sanctity of the Ramleela as they knew it.

Pandit Bhownath Maraj, narrator and director of the Sangre Grande Ramleela, however, expressed the view that the filmi aspects that were introduced in the Ramleela at Sangre Grande embellished the Ramleela presentation and made it more audience-friendly, particularly for the younger generations, rather than negatively affecting the presentations. Once the Ramleela script was kept intact and followed the tenets of the Ramayan text, the filmi inputs would not destroy the Ramleela exhibition but would enhance the performance. Most of the songs used in the presentation were songs that people were familiar with; hence, they were likely to be more appreciative of the Ramleela presentation.[7] During the last two decades, therefore the filmi element had become an indispensable aspect of the Ramleela Festival in Trinidad. The filmi onslaught into the religious arena in Trinidad did not stop with Ramleela but also found fertile ground in the Phagwa festival.

Many East Indians, particularly those in the rural areas, had rejected western and English music as against their traditions and values and had gravitated to the local Indian classical and folk music. However, with the advent of Indian filmi music, this new type of music endeared itself to local East Indians who found it uplifting, emotional and all-embracing.

This new filmi music had a unique melody that caught the attention of the masses and appealed to them in a way that other music did not or could not. There was something in the melody and harmony of the filmi music that lingered in the mind long after the song had been played. This musical appeal to the masses by the composers ensured the considerable success of this new type of music. Narsaloo Ramaya suggested that in Trinidad, it was the melody and the harmony that appealed to the East Indian masses and kept their appetite, “hungry for more and more of the same kind of music and songs” so that they eagerly looked forward to hearing this “new kind of music.” [8].

Filmi music in Trinidad had an extremely negative impact on local Indian classical singing because hitherto mostly classical and traditional folk songs were the order of the day at most East Indian events including Ramleela. With the growing popularity of the new film songs and Indian orchestras in Trinidad, traditional folk and classical songs were gradually pushed to the background as the filmi songs began their hegemonic march in the Trinidad East Indian musical circuit not only impacting on weddings but on all other social and religious Indian occasions. The rapid rise of this “new music” in Trinidad sounded the death knell of local Indian classical music here, which had hitherto been flourishing.

The manner in which festivals such as Divali, Phagwa, Ramleela and Ramayan and Bhagwat yagnas were celebrated in Trinidad was manifestly different from what obtained in India. While the same names were used in India for the mentioned festivals, the Trinidad versions of those festivals had a substantial filmi and local input that made them peculiarly Trinidadian.

Elements that were present in the localization of almost every aspect of Indian cultural patterns in Trinidad included the filmi influences of songs, dances, drama, music and dress in the Ramleela. Whatever the view is taken, the local inputs, although often foreign in nature, when combined with local inputs contributed to several changes in Ramleela to such an extent that they were no longer considered foreign to Trinidad. They became indigenous to Trinidad since they were not found in any other country in the formats in which they were embedded in the Ramleela in Trinidad. Thus Trinidad Ramleela has become uniquely Trinidadian and indigenous to this country because of the filmi and other inputs.

Another aspect of the filmi incursions into the Trinidad Ramleela can be found in the use of the mike men at the  Ramleela festival. To the mike man, this was also a challenge to go to a Ramleela armed with a repertoire of filmi religious songs. Wherever he went, the mike man was sure to be the center of attraction. He was a veritable “star boy” at cooking nights with many trying to befriend him or get his attention to have their special requests played on the mike system. It was no different with the Ramleelas. He was also often commissioned to play filmi songs at the Ramleelas before, during and after the drama presentation. His loud music before the drama presentation served to alert villagers that the Ramleela drama was about to start. Ramaya commented that in the early days of the mike men, the Ramleela narrators had a hard time following the mike men with their rhythmic and catchy music. During the play and at intervals they played filmi songs. During the play, the narrators asked them to play pre-arranged religious songs to enhance the productions.

Indian movies that were shown in Trinidad, collectively and cumulatively, influenced important aspects of the Ramleela presentation in Trinidad. Consequently, several changes accrued over the years that changed the face of Ramleela in the country and contributed to a new Ramleela identity for East Indians. This new Ramleela identity was linked to the imitation of aspects of Indian movies such as songs, music, dances and drama.  

In the process, the Trinidad Ramleela, therefore, moved away from a dependency on traditional Indian art forms as prevailed in the pre-1935 East Indian society in Trinidad to embracing the new filmi music after 1935. At that time, Indian traditional cultural forms such as classical singing, folk songs, dress, dances, rituals and ceremonies formed the major components of that Ramleela identity. Today local East Indian classical singing, folk songs, dress, festivals, rituals and ceremonies still constitute major components of the Trinidad Ramleela identity but their form and content, influenced by the filmi inputs, have undergone many changes during the last thirty years. In the case of the Sangre Grande Ramleela the filmi inputs into the  Ramleela there,  has made it uniquely Trinidadian. New genres of local Indian music and dance such as chutney, filmi remakes, locally choreographed filmi and classical dances that evolved, have also contributed to this new Ramleela identity. This new Ramleela identity was manifestly different from the identity features of the Ramleela pre-1935 as it combined traditions and values of the past with the modern filmi culture and its spinoffs. This scenario was replicated in many Ramleelas throughout the country.

The Trinidad Ramleela narrative posits that beginning with the advent of Indian movies in Trinidad there were at first subtle changes in the Ramleela traditions, but as Indian movies continued to arrive on the island, their influence became more pronounced, marked by major changes in Ramleela cultural programming. From the performance of traditional songs and dances at Ramleela events, Ramleela adherents began to imitate songs and dances from Indian movies. Gradually with time, the imitations changed to remakes of filmi songs and dances using Trinidadian and Caribbean rhythms yet maintaining the filmi melody. Local dancers who initially imitated filmi dances, by the 1990s began to choreograph their own dances using filmi songs. The next logical step for these local filmi dancers in the evolution of the local filmi influenced dances in Trinidad was the use of local remakes of the filmi songs combined with local choreography in the production of local filmi dances and those dances were part of the Ramleela presentations. In Sangre Grande during the Street Parade of the effigy of Ravan before its burning on the 10th Day of the Ramleela, several dance groups danced to filmi songs along the street in front of the effigy using filmi songs and this was a big hit with the street audiences.

Indian films afforded Ramleela in Trinidad a space to rejuvenate and enhance their Ramleela presentations making it more appealing to a wider cross-section to the population. While some saw it as the loss of the pure traditional representation of the Ramleela, it nevertheless heralded the dawn that attuned them to new concepts of Ramleela presentations in Trinidad.

The East Indians and the evolving Ramleelas in Trinidad were faced with social, cultural, religious and spatial changes and the introduction of Indian movies in 1935 impacted several aspects of their lives, including Ramleela.

There is the contention that while the peripheral aspects of Ramleela may change to suit the new environment, the core areas of the drama remain the same. There is the argument that many aspects of the Ramleela culture are fundamentally tied to in-built religious protections and as such, the core aspects of these cultural components remain intact regardless of the diversity and peripheral changes and that occur around them. The influence of filmi songs and dances in the evolution of Ramleela in Trinidad has over the years, enhanced the Ramleela production without affecting the core principles of the Ramleela.  

BIBLIOGRAPHY

INTERVIEWS

Baboolal, Elizabeth; Sangre Chiquito.  Female. Retiree. 83 years. 6/5/ 1998

Deoraj Harikissoon; Palmyra Village  22/3/10. Male. 95 years. Retired Labourer

Gosine, Siew; Mundo Nuevo  (Arima).   18/3/09.  Male. 91 years. Retiree. Former Indra Sabha Dancer and Ramleela activist.

Maraj, Bhownwth; Sangre Grande.  4/3/13. Male. 58 years. Pundit, Cultural Activist, Teacher.  

Ramaya, Narsaloo; San Juan.   5/5/08. Male. Retiree. Cultural Icon. 85 years.

Ramcharran, Nandlal;  Plum Road;   08/04/09. Male.101 years. Plum Road, Manzanilla. Retired Labourer.

Sookdeo, Boodram, Sangre Grande. Male.  92 years. Retiree. 5/5/95


[1] Mamoo vine. A very sturdy pliable vine found in forested regions of the country.

[2] Roukou. A local fruit that can be traced back to the early indigenous inhabitants in Trinidad.

[3] Interview with Boodram Sookdeo who indicated that the spaces between the barracks were used as gathering spots and for ‘estate Ramleelas.’

[4] Information on the early Ramleelas in Trinidad was compositely compiled based on interviews with Boodram Sookdeo, 92, Sangre Grande; Nandlal Ramcharran, 101, Plum Road; Deoraj Harikissoon, 95, Palmyra Village and Elizabeth Baboolal, 83, Sangre Chiquito.

[5] Dow Village Ramleela is regarded as the oldest Ramleela in the country having commenced in 1881.

[6] Interview with Siew Gosine.

[7] Interview with Pundit Bhownath Maraj, 6/4/13

[8] Interview with Narsaloo Ramaya.

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