Ramleela (Ramlila) in Trinidad: Traditions versus Modernity – A case study in the rural community of Sangre Grande

Introduction

The Ramleela (Ramlila) was brought to Trinidad by the Indian indentured immigrants who came to the country during 1845–1917. During that time 147,592 Indians from areas such as Bihar, Bengal, the United Provinces (undivided Uttar Pradesh), and Madras (Tamil Nadu) were brought to the colony. Eighty-five percent of them were Hindus. The majority of the girmityas (agreement signers), one out of every five, chose to make Trinidad their home and today their offspring 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. This made the Trinidad Ramleela a unique blend of the East and West.

Settling into a new environment and keeping the Ramleela alive posed severe challenges for the East Indians as there were no ‘shop’ costumes or ready-made crowns available. Costumes and other paraphernalia used for the Ramleela were made 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 sticks and sturdy leaves with wild-flowers tucked into them for beauty, all held together by mamoo, a very sturdy and pliable vine found in forested regions.  In those early days, in the hinterlands, they used whatever was readily available to enhance their appearances in the Ramleela and so they used the soot from the chulha (fireside) to smear their faces to look like demons. They also used the red paste from the roucou, a local fruit that can be traced back to the early indigenous inhabitants in Trinidad to decorate their faces and bodies. The actors dressed in their best clothing available. Sita’s jewels were made from vines, sticks, and colored leaves, although in some communities, the women loaned the jewelry they had brought from India. All the players in the Ramleela were males. The women sang suitable folk songs and bhajans as the scenes demanded. For example, at the birth of Rama, they sang appropriate songs to commemorate the occasion.

Since on the estates and roadways the playing areas were 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. The spaces between the barracks were used as gathering spots and for ‘estate’ Ramleelas (Boodram Sookdeo 1991). There was always a narrator or storyteller who guided the players through the presentation, and he was often to be found on the field among the players, directing them, while narrating as there were no microphones for him.

Much of what was portrayed in their early Ramleelas was derived from memory cumulatively culled from among the indentured immigrants. Some people composed verses on the spot for the festival. Since much of what was portrayed as the Ramleela in the early days of the Indian indentureship in Trinidad were contextualized from memory, there were many misrepresentations and errors in their presentations, but in the course of time with the arrival of books and knowledgeable persons from India on the subject, many such inaccuracies were rectified. (Information on the early Ramleelas in Trinidad was compositely compiled based on interviews with Boodram Sookdeo, 92, Sangre Grande; Nandlal Ramcharran, 88, Plum Road; and Elizabeth Baboolal, 83, Sangre Chiquito.)

Ramleela at Sangre Grande and Environs

Bow and sword used in 1958 Ramleela at Sangre Chiquito, Trinidad. Photo courtesy Lennox Daniel.

Indian indentured immigrants were brought in to work in the region in areas such as Biche, Plum Mitan, Cumuto, Tamana, Guaico, Sangre Chiquito, Vega De Oropouche, among others. While some of them worked on sugar plantations, the majority were sent to coffee and cocoa plantations. Wherever they worked, however, they found time to continue their cultural practices that included the Ramleela. ‘Estate’Ramleelas’ as they were commonly referred to, were minor celebrations held on the various estates, but cumulatively helped to keep the culture alive in the region. By the 1930s, most of those Estate Ramleelas had ceased to exist and there were a few small community Ramleelas in Plum Mitan, Biche, and Cumuto. Lennox Daniel, Vice president of the Sangre Grande Ramleela Committee, recalled one of his grand uncles and his grandfather relating stories about their involvement in the Cumuto Ramleelas during the 1940s (Lennox Daniel 2015). He displayed artifacts (a sword, and a bow and arrow) used by his grandfather in those early Ramleelas. Boodram Sookdeo (op. cit), recalled a small village Ramleela in the Plum Road-Plum Mitan area in the late 1940s, but after that, Ramleela in the region seemed to have gone dormant until 1958 when a large Ramleela festival was held in Sangre Chiquito.

Ramleela of 1958–62 at Sangre Grande

In 1957, Mr. and Mrs. Baboolal decided to host five years of Ramleela at their private temple at Sangre Chiquito. The majority of players, narrators, pundits, costume makers, and other technical expertise were sourced from outside the district. Most came in from Penal and Princes Town in the southern part of the country. They took up temporary residence in the area during the Ramleelas each year. It was the first time that such a large festival of this nature was held in the region and many people assisted in several ways. According to eighty-six-year old Mrs. Baboolal, “the players were well dressed and there were huge crowds each day at the festival.  Volunteers cooked meals and served everyone attending the Ramleela. Some of the local people assisted in the workshops at night, but the folks from Penal and Princess Town coordinated the effort. Those were traditional Ramleelas. They were done in the open air. By the end of the five years, some of those who came to assist and take part in the Ramleelas found life partners, married, and settled in the area. Among those were a few pundits.” (Elizabeth Baboolal 1991). It would be another twenty-eight years before an event of such magnitude would be held in the region because after this the Ramleela spirit seemed to die out until 1990 when the Sangre Grande Ramleela Committee (SGRC) was formed and it’s members decided to reintroduce the Ramleela into the region.

Two Types of Ramleela in Trinidad: Open-air Ramleela and Natak Ramkatha (Indoor Ramleela)

A distinction must be made between what has been called traditional Ramleela (open-air Ramleela) and the indoor dramatization of the Ramleela on a stage in Trinidad. The traditional Ramleela is performed in the open-air space and is generally believed to be the true Ramleela. The performances are based on the same Ramayana; those held on the indoor stage are referred to as Natak Ramkatha or just Ramkatha. This distinction is necessary to distinguish between the traditional Ramleela and later versions of the ‘stage’ Ramayana performances that developed in the country after 1995.  However, in Trinidad, as in other parts of the world, most groups refer to their Ramayana portrayals in the Ramleela season as “Ramleela.”

The Sangre Grande Ramleela Committee

Sangre Grande is a rural community nestled in the northeast of the country. The community is one of mixed ancestry with Afro-Trinidadians, Indo- Trinidadians, Chinese, French, Spanish, and English. The hub of the Ramleela activities for the SGRC centers around a few groups in the region-Sant Nagar Ramayana and Chowtal Goal (SNRCG); Sant Nagar Hindu Temple (SNHT); the Sangre Grande Hindu School (SGHS); Sangre Grande Phagwa Committee (SGPC); Sangre Grande Cultural Promotions (SGCP); Sant Nagar Hindu Youth Group (SNHYG) and the surrounding villages.  The SGRC was founded in 1990 and works in collaboration with these organizations to ensure a successful Ramleela each year. The membership of the SGRC is derived from these groups and the neighboring communities, including Biche, Cunaripo, Manzanilla, Tamana, Coalmine, Guaico, James Smart Village, Sangre Chiquito, Plum Road, Plum Mitan, Paharry Village, Vega De Oropouche, Fishing Pond Village, Arima, Valencia and Sangre Grande.

When the SGRC began the Ramleela at Sangre Grande in 1991, there were ten Ramleelas in Trinidad. Today, due to the work of the National Ramleela Council, Trinidad boasts of thirty-nine active Ramleelas. One of the principal venues where the festival flourishes is at Sangre Grande. The Ramleela of Sangre Grande is unique to Trinidad and while it shares many similarities with other Ramleelas in the country, it has developed several unique syncretic traits that characterize its distinctiveness.

Beginning in March each year, members and volunteers are involved in meetings, planning, training, workshops, work camps, general Ramleela preparation and fasting. These activities touch many individuals, families, homes, elders, children, temples, schools, community groups, and businesses. Many people in the community who are not even directly connected benefit as they are involved in various activities such as preparing meals or vending. Others look for an opportunity to contribute to a worthy cause and find that the Ramleela meets their criteria and so they donate meals and saris for the players, decorations, prasad, treats for the children, and services that help to make  the Ramleela successful.

The flair and enthusiasm with which the members of the SGRC stage their Ramleela has

made this event one of the most popular and sought after in the region and other parts of the country, although the group has only been in existence for the last 25 years.

Ramleela at Sangre Grande: A community event

Ramleela costume workshop in session at Sangre Grande  

Like all Hindu festivals, Ramleela contributes signifi­cantly to spiritual growth, value education, family life, and socialization. Ramleela at Sangre Grande is a huge stage that brings together a large section of the community through this event, people of diverse cultures and lifestyles come together and learn to appreciate each other’s culture. New relationships are formed and some of them remain for life. This event involves the participation of many people in the preparatory stage and the implications of collaboration, responsi­ble behavior and discipline become evident as volunteers develop a sense of belonging and accomplishment in the execution of the project. This demeanor is seen in their general family like deportment throughout the venture. A great deal of preparation is necessary to ensure a successful Ramleela presentation. Preparatory inputs include fund-raising activities, playing arena preparation, building props, training workshops, creating costumes, erecting structures, construction of the effigy of Ravana, and regular rehearsals. Volunteers are often strangers to each other, but they learn to work together, trust, cooperate and appreciate each other, and in the process, develop skills in the areas of communication, socialization, togetherness, and mutual understanding as they work towards a common cause. Also, they develop self-confidence, self-respect, and purposefulness in their actions.

There is a high degree of collective responsibility in all relevant areas in the production of the Ramleela. At the social level, the Ramleela is motivating enough to help guide people away from drugs, violence, and other anti-social behavior. Bartholomew Phillip, a seasoned Afro-Trinidadian player with the Sangre Grande Ramleela, confessed, “If I had not been involved in the Ramleela, I might have gotten into drugs and ended up in jail.” (Bartholomew Phillip 2015). People from all walks of life support the Ramleela either directly or indirectly. Members of various ethnic groups that participate in the Ramleela activities help to cultivate a sense of tolerance and solidarity in the community. The youth look forward to active participation in the Ram­leela and spend hours working on costumes, building various structures, and contributing in other ways. By doing so, they gain discipline and contentment. They give up other activities such as going to parties and movies to work towards a successful Ramleela. In addition, there are several women who participate in the event, especially as soldiers, a role previously dominated by men. This festival helps in molding participants into good citizens capable of transferring “Ramleela skills” into other areas of life such as public relations, co­operation, and community support groups.

Rituals and Ceremonies

There are several rituals and ceremonies associated with the Sangre Grande Ramleela.

Dee Puja

This is a special ritual performed at the beginning of an event to invoke the blessings of Dee Baba for the protection of the land and the people. However, in the Ramleela, it is  performed twice; once, at the beginning at the bamboo stool before the bamboos are felled and then at the Ramleela Ground before work commences to prepare the playing arena. Dee Baba is not found in original Hindu scriptures brought from India, nor is it found in Suriname, Guyana, Fiji, Mauritius, or in other parts of the Indian diaspora. It is a local “spiritual entity” peculiar to Trinidad. 

On the morning of the date set to cut the bamboo for use in the Ramleela, before any bamboo stalk is cut, senior members of the SGRC visit the bamboo stool. Equipped with a nip (quart) of puncheon rum, butter, biscuits (salted crackers), cigarettes, candle and other paraphernalia, they perform Dee Puja at the root of the selected bamboo stool. There is a common belief among the members of the bamboo-cutting party that in performing this special ritual, they are appeasing Dee Baba, who is held as the protector of the forest, land, and people. They seek his blessings and permission to disturb the forest and the land, and then to guide them and protect them during the cutting of the bamboo. They promise that they will only take what is required for their purpose and no animal, bird, fish, or other trees or plants in the forest will be harmed unnecessarily. They further promise that after taking what is needed, they will return the land to normalcy.  When their task is done, they thank Dee Baba, load the bamboo unto a long truck, and take it to the campsite for use.

Open-air rituals

Once at the campsite, after the bamboo is offloaded, to symbolize the commencement of constructing the effigy of Ravana, a single long bamboo is split into eight pieces. The pundit of the group performs certain Hindu rituals, chants the relevant mantras, blesses the bamboo and Ravana’s crew, as he invokes the blessings of various deities such as Lord Ganesha, Lord Shiva, Lord Surya (Sun God), and Lord Rama. Blessings are sought for the general protection of the workers that no accidents will befall them during the construction of the effigy of Ravana and while working on other aspects of the Ramleela work; that they are given the wisdom and knowledge to perform their tasks and that they encounter no obstacles. Blessings are sought for the successful completion of the Ramleela.  This brief ceremony is conducted in the open-air with Ramleela volunteer workers where the pundit of the group officiates, reciting the relevant mantras, while the rituals are performed with a lota (small metallic pot) of water, mango leaves, flowers, rice, camphor, and other paraphernalia.

After the rituals at the campsite are completed, the entourage proceeds to the open-air field where the Ramleela is to be performed. Here, a second Dee Puja is performed, again recognizing Dee Baba as the protector of the land and all the buildings thereon. Similar offerings are made here as done earlier at the bamboo stool, but this time the puja is performed at the four corners and the center of the open-air Ramleela field. Once more, the members of the group ask Dee Baba for his blessings and protection, for permission to use the land in performing the Ramleela. They further seek his protection during the construction and the dismantling of the structures. During the staging of the Ramleela: they ask that no calamities befall the group or anyone involved in the activities, including visitors, while they occupy the land and use the buildings erected on it. There is also the promise that they will only stay as long as necessary to complete the project that they have undertaken and that they would only erect structures that are essential to the purpose at hand so as not to overburden Mother Earth and that the structures would be removed after the event is completed. They seek blessings for the temporary safe occupation of the land.

Tying the land

This ritual (Dee Baba Puja) on the Ramleela playing field is also called “tying of the ground”. The group asks the deity to protect the players from negative influences during their portrayals from those who may attend with the mal-intention of creating confusion among the players.

Daily rituals during Ramleela days

At the start of each day’s play, cast members, led by the Ramayani, gather at the Ayodhya palace, where worship is done to the Holy Ramayana. Pt. Maraj explains, “The Ramayana represents the revealed word of God; hence it is worshipped (God is the Word and the Word is God). Aarti is also performed on the personages of Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, Shatrughana and Sita, who are seen as the living representation of their respective namesake gods (swarupas) during the Ramleela. Throughout the Ramleela, the players who perform those roles are considered living representations of the forms of Rama, his brothers, and Sita and are worshipped accordingly. During this time, they observe the appropriate fasts, rituals, and other requisites for enacting the Ramleela. Five women volunteers from among the spectators, whose husbands are alive, are invited to perform aarti to the Ramayana and the swarupas on behalf of everyone present.” (Ramayani and narrator Pt. Bhownath Maraj, 2015). For the entire period of the Ramleela at Sangre Grande, as mentioned earlier, the actors playing the key roles are given special significance as if they were the original personages or Gods. This is especially so for Rama and Sita, who are the center of attraction during the entire event. In the case of Rama, some spectators when they meet him on the streets during and immediately after the Ramleela show, bow their heads in adoration and silently acknowledge him as Sri Rama. He remains Rama, regardless of what he does or where he goes. In a sense, the Rama actor remains bound, his lifestyle restricted, both during the Ramleela and thereafter, because of the role that he plays.

 Once the worship of the Ramayana and the swarupas is over, the players receive their blessings and gather on the center stage of the playing field. In the meantime, the Ramayani/pundit proceeds to the perimeter of the playing field where certain rituals are once more performed to protect the field, the players and the Ramleela. A ‘coconut ritual’ is also performed during this time. Next, led by the Ramayani, the opening prayers and mantras are chanted and everyone joins in the recitations. Most players, especially the child soldiers, are familiar with the mantras chanted since the mantras are regularly taught to the students at the SGHS. After the opening ceremonies are performed, the players are invited to parade. They perform the traditional Ramleela dance as they circumambulate the playing arena to the accompaniment of the tassa drums (a special ensemble of four drums and a cymbal popular in Trinidad). The main players use the opportunity to display their skills in the Ramleela while the child soldiers also demonstrate their newly acquired Ramleela dance skills.

After- play rituals

 At the end of the day’s play, all players once again meet at the Ayodhya palace where worship is once more performed on the Ramayana and the swarupas and final benediction is received. Then all players assemble on the center stage where the formal closing mantras are recited concluding the day’s proceedings. Refreshments are distributed to the players: children first, followed by adult players, then guests, members of the committee, and others.

These rituals are performed daily as Pt. Maraj explains, “One must recall that Ramayana is the main ingredient in Ramleela and everything that is done centers around the Ramayana; hence it is worshipped at the beginning and at the end of each day’s activity.” (Ibid.)

Visit to the temple

On the first day of the Ramleela, before the play opens, all cast members, dressed in their costumes, visit SNHT and worship various deities seeking their blessings before undertaking their activities in the event. The Ramayani/pundit is present and guides the players in those rituals at the temple. Then, on the final day when the return of Rama to Ayodhya, commonly known as the Rama-Bharata Milap,takes place, cast members again return to the temple where similar worship is again performed before the scene  for the day is enacted. The main worship done at the temple this time is in honor of Lord Shiva, Lord Rama, and Lord Hanuman.

Thanksgiving and evening of appreciation

On the first Saturday afternoon following the end of the Ramleela, the SGRC hosts a gala appreciation and thanksgiving event in celebration of the success of that year’s festival. A thanksgiving puja is performed thanking God for the success of the Ramleela. This is followed by an evening of entertainment punctuated by the presentation of trophies, medals, and certificates of participation to cast members.

Consecration of the Ramleela ground

This is a special puja performed on the first day of the Navaratri, which occurs during October-November. Navaratri is a Sanskrit term, which means nine nights. This is a Hindu festival in which God is worshipped in the form of the Divine Mother. During the celebrations, three days each are dedicated to worshipping the Divine in the forms of Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. By this time, almost all preparations for the Ramleela have been completed: the physical structures are in place, most props are ready, the effigy of Ravana is almost complete, the center stage has been erected, the costumes are ready, and the performance arena is sanded and equipped to receive its inhabitants for the next eleven days of Ramleela.

The consecration puja is performed in the command post and members of the cast are invited to join in the performance of the rituals.  Among those who actively participate in this ceremony are the persons playing the roles of Rama, Bharata, Lakshmana, Shatrughana, Sita, Hanuman, King Ravana, and Mandodari. At the end of the ceremony, special jhandis (flags) are planted around the circular arena cordoned off for the Ramleela, thus encircling the area as sacred ground. In addition, a huge 75-foot Hanuman jhandi is buried in the center of the playing area. This flag, emblazoned with the image of Hanuman, is flown atop the pole and can be seen from a long distance away from the site. This symbolizes that Hanuman, the great devotee of Lord Rama, is keeping watch over the Ramleela. Following the erection of this center pole jhandi,

Consecration puja being performed by members of the SGRC in the command booth.

the Ramleela ground is formally consecrated following in the Sanatana Dharma tradition, and then the parikrama or circumambulation of the playing field takes place. This is the ancient way of marking off the area for the Ramleela performance and has the potency of warding off all unwanted spirits or other negativities. In addition, each day before the Ramleela begins a renewal of the rituals is performed, followed by the circumambulation of the playing area by the players performing on that particular day and this is accompanied by the beat of the tassa drums. These rituals cleanse the Ramleela arena and prepare the site to welcome the deities who will reside there and preside over the Ramleela for the next eleven days. The Ramleela arena is then considered holy ground, a veritable temple, where a “Maha Yagna”(the great ritual) is about to take place. Everyone entering is asked to observe the obligatory protocols, and signs are placed at strategic points as reminders to the public: no alcohol and no meat may be brought, consumed, or sold on the premises.

Living with the saints

Lennox Daniel (op. cit.) explained that some members of the Ramleela committee take up temporary residence on the ground for the duration of the Ramleela and while they serve a religious purpose they assist as caretakers of all properties at the arena. Pt. Maraj (op. cit.) further added, “during the ground consecration ceremony, Hindu deities (gods, goddesses, and devatas) are invited to be present, to witness, and to watch over the Ramleela, its participants and attendees. The same ritual is done in a puja at a home, in a temple, or in a public space for a Ramayana yagna.” This sanctification process of the site makes it just as sacred as the temple space during the Ramleela. The deities live and preside over the Ramleela site for eleven days and on the twelfth day, a special ceremonial puja is held to conclude the spiritual aspects of the Ramleela, and thank the gods, the goddesses, and the devatas who were invited to witness and watch over the Ramleela. Those spiritual beings are politely requested to return to their heavenly abodes, having completed their mission. Besides the spiritual beings invited, some members of the committee volunteer to take up interim residence on the ground, in the command post, to keep company with the saints from the date of the consecration puja to the twelfth day of the Ramleela. Once the concluding puja is completed, the dismantling of the structures begins. Usually, there are between five and ten males who reside with the spiritual beings keeping them company for the twelve days. They consider themselves specially blessed to have the opportunity to live in the company of the gods and goddesses, on the site. This understanding constrains them to behave in a manner consistent with the spiritual values and the tenets of the Ramleela festival. Therefore, great care is taken in selecting the company who live on the Ramleela site (ground). Generally, during that time, there is a high level of discipline on the site among the dwellers.

Ramleela Dates, Ramleela Season

According to Pt. Maraj, the annual dates for the Ramleela are usually chosen after consideration of the dates for the Navaratri celebrations. There are two sets of celebrations of Navaratri in a year. For the Ramleela, the dates for the second Navaratri festival fall in October-November are relevant because the end of the festival closely coincides with the Dussehra festival that signifies Lord Rama’s killing of King Ravana, the Lord of Lanka, and rescuing Sita, whom Ravana had kidnapped. In Trinidad, the Ramleela traditionally begins on the first day of the Navaratri festival and ends one day after, on the tenth day, with the burning of the effigy of Ravana. In Sangre Grande, the group has added an extra day (the eleventh day) to commemorate the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya. However, many traditional Ramleela groups in the country do not celebrate this event on a separate day and instead incorporate it into the tenth day of their Ramleela festival.

Pt. Maraj further explained, “while the dates for the Ramleela are established according to the second Navaratri session, in Trinidad during the last fifty years, many groups, including the SGRC, have deviated slightly from the practice and start their Ramleela on the first Friday after the commencement of the second Navaratri festival. This is done so that the “Dussehra event” can take place on a Sunday, to facilitate the enormous crowd that attends on the tenth day to witness the spectacle of the burning of the effigy of  Ravana. Over the years this has become common practice; a tradition among many of the groups. If per chance, a group chooses to observe the Dussehra on a weekday and the effigy of Ravana has to be burnt on that day, the group finds it difficult to get volunteers to manage the project effectively. The effigy of Ravana is usually erected on the morning of the tenth day, and that requires a great deal of manpower. Volunteers are readily available on a Sunday and therefore the decision to adjust the dates. In the final analysis, we live in a Western society and I believe this is a small price to pay for the benefit of the wider population. In Sangre Grande, therefore Ramleela commences on the first Friday after the second Navaratri festival begins and ends on a Sunday ten days later.”

Once the changes were made to the dates of Ramleela celebrations in the country, that opened the floodgates for other variations to take place, resulting in fluctuations in the dates of Ramleela celebrations by other groups. In recent years, some groups began their Ramleela after the end of the Navaratri festival while others commence theirs after the Diwali festival. In addition, some groups commence their celebrations more than a month after the Ramleela officially ends. This has caused the Ramleela festival in Trinidad to morph into a Ramleela season spanning fifty to sixty days. On the positive side, this allows the organizers and actors who have completed their festival to visit other venues in support of their celebrations and make comparisons with an eye for improvement. The late Boodram ‘Doodge’ Sookdeo in 1991 indicated that in the earlier days of the Ramleela before the 1970s all groups celebrated the festival at the same time and it was impossible for players and spectators to participate in and visit other groups to see their celebrations.

Learning the Ramleela First Hand

When the group hosted its first Ramleela in 1991 it did so in conjunction with another group- the Pierre Road Ramayana and the Chowtal Ramleela Group (PRRCG) from Chaguanas, Central Trinidad, which was invited to initiate the Ramleela in the region. The informal agreement with the PRRCG suggested that the visiting group would provide all the main actors for the performance in an effort to teach the local cast members the various roles in the overall production. This also included the Ramayani (chanting of the Ramayana verses), the narrator, director and guidance in constructing the effigy of Ravana. In addition, the visiting group would teach the Sangre Grande group the necessary skills to produce the costumes,  props including the building of ashrams on the open field and other paraphernalia related to the Ramleela.  In return, the local group would provide all the infrastructure, props, and costumes, transportation for the contingent from the Pierre Road group to and from its home base during the Ramleela including the pre-event workshop, personnel and everything else necessary for the successful production of the 1991 Ramleela at Sangre Grande. This hands-on training was expected to work in favor of the Sangre Grande Ramleela

Sample of costumes made in workshop: crowns, chest plates, armbands, and other pieces.  

cast since no one had ever performed in a Ramleela before.

As part of the arrangement, for the first time in a Ramleela performance in Trinidad and Tobago, there were two persons for each character on the field of play during the performance. One was from the host group and the other from the visiting group, with the visitor in the lead. For example, when Rama is on the stage, there would be a shadow Rama from the host group mirroring the actions of the lead Rama, learning the intricacies of the role hands-on. In this way, it was envisaged that the cast members of the host group would learn quickly and be able to successfully undertake their performances in the following year.

The decision of the PRRCG to forego their performance at their home ground and jointly host the event at Sangre Grande was a tremendous boost to the host group as it gave them firsthand insight and assistance. This method of teaching the Ramleela to a new group was subsequently adopted by the SGRC when it used the same method with the Rio Claro Ramleela Committee (2000); Tunapuna Ramleela (2003); Frederick Settlement Ramleela Group (Caroni 2006); and Brothers Road Ramleela, Princes Town (2015).

Presentation and Performance

Part of the large contingent of children soldiers in Rama’s army in the Sangre Grande Ramleela awaiting orders to go into action.

At Sangre Grande, the open-air Ramleela Theatre arena is cordoned off from the audience. In the earlier years, the barriers were made of split bamboo stalks, but these have been replaced in recent years with PVC pipes, which are more aesthetic and pose less chance of injury to bystanders.

 The area is well decorated and presents a huge stage for the Ramleela presentation. Each day, before the Ramleela Theatre begins the cast members scheduled to play on that day are presented to the public in full dress. “It is one of the most wonderful sights to behold the more than 100 children soldiers standing with the adult players all fully dressed, with their weapons, shields and other paraphernalia. This for me is one of the high points of our Ramleela, having so many children perform on the Ramleela field,” declared Lennox Daniel, the Vice president of the group.

Once the performance begins the Ramayani/narrator cum director, Pt. Bhownath Maraj is in charge of the proceedings until the final prayers are recited at the end of the session, some two hours later. Prop masters and assistants set up the scenes as necessary, on and off the center stage. The Ramayani begins by chanting the relevant chowpaiees and shlokas (verses) from the holy text in Sanskrit. Then he reads a brief explanation in Hindi (sometimes, however, when pressed for time he skips the Hindi explanation as very few people understand Hindi) and moves on to the narration in English. As he narrates the story, cast members take their cue and perform their scenes accordingly. None of the actors speak out their words, although they mime or perform along with the text of the narration. The performance proceeds uninterrupted as the narrator continues the story beyond the verses read from the Ramayana and bridges the various verses in his narration. In this way, the narrator may go through two or three pages of the Ramayana text before he returns to chant another verse from the holy book. Large portions of the story are therefore performed with the verses from the Ramayana being used as the markers for continuity. Key verses are used as markers to link the text to the portrayals. Pt. Maraj indicated, “This is different to a stage play where the Ramayana is enacted like a drama with little reference to the text. Besides, many people love to hear the chanting of the original Ramayana without which they feel that the Ramleela is not complete. While we cannot chant the whole text, selected key verses link the story to the Ramayana and that serves as a reminder to the audience about the original

Dr. Primnath Gooptar, president of the SGRC, presents a long service award to Ramayanai/narrator of Sangre Grande Ramleela, Pt. Bhownath Maraj (left), who shows off the award to the camera (right).

source of the Ramleela.”

The manner of the narration precludes a director. In the early performances during 1991–1996, there was a director on the field, but he was more of a distraction. His role was eventually sublimated into that of the narrator. There is, of course, an overall director for the show, but the onstage director has been discontinued. Pt. Maraj has developed a unique style of narration that brings together the three positions and he performs those roles with considerable ease. He has at his command two runners and a prop master who take orders from him (off the air) during the play and set the stage for the scenes to follow. He never instructs on-air. During rehearsals, the prop master takes copious notes of his responsibilities and arrangements for the necessary props and other paraphernalia are put in place long before the curtain rises. The narrator has a commanding voice and keeps the attention of the audience and cast members alike. He chants in Sanskrit, speaks in English, and quickly moves on with the portrayals.

Often there are short breaks during which time local dance groups are invited to perform and these dances are woven into the play as an event taking place in the court of Ravana —as entertainment in a tribal setting in the forest or entertainment provided for soldiers during the night time. The dances are mostly Bollywood-influenced items choreographed to fit into the run of the play. Also, there are other scenes where the cast performs dance sequences; these include the scenes preceding the disfiguration of Surpanakha’s nose and the dancing sage awaiting a visit from the Lord. During the Sangre Grande Ramleela, there are no less than thirty-five dances performed during the eleven-day sequence, which includes the huge concert held to celebrate Rama’s coronation as the King of Ayodhya on the last night of the Ramleela. Musicians, tassa ensembles, local singers, and dance groups perform for the coronation.

The cast

A scene from the Rama- Bharat Milap night at Sangre Grande Ramleela.

One of the unique features of the Sangre Grande Ramleela is the presence of more than 100 children players, in addition to the regular seventy-five adult members of the cast. The student soldiers form the bulk of the army of either Rama or Ravana. Audience members regularly comment in positive terms about the child soldiers who are always eager to portray their fight scenes with their mukhdars, swords, and shields. The Secretary of the SGRC, Kamaldaye Daniel, indicated that she has often received positive comments about the many children participating in the Ramleela and by extension, understanding their religion and culture. Many children who performed in the Ramleela as soldiers in the early years now play the adult roles in the same drama.

The cast also comprises of Hindus, Christians, and Muslims and there is no conflict of religion or race and all are treated equally at this grand festival.

Sound effects and film songs

Background music, songs, and live tassa drums are played as the scene merits. For example, when the fight scenes are taking place the tassa drums and specially selected sound effects are played to create a special ambiance for the spirited fight scenes. When Dasharatha dies, songs such as the sad, but moving, Pinjare ke panchi (a caged bird) from the film Nastik is played. This particular song continues to bring tears to the eyes of many of the players and members of the audience. When Rama and Sita are married, a film wedding song, such as Doli Chadh Ke Dulhan Sasural Chali (the bride will go to the in-laws’ home in the palanquin) from the film Doli (1969, palanquin and or wedding procession) is played. The narrator renders a traditional folk song, Seeya daale Rama gale jaimala, (Sita puts the wedding garland on Rama’s neck) Babul Ki Duayein Leti Jaa (take your father’s prayer for blessings) from Neel Kamal (1968, Blue Lotus) is also played for the wedding scene. When Rama leaves to go into the forest, the film Bhajan, Chor Chale (leave and go) from the film Ramayana (1960) is played in the background with significant effect to dramatize the scene. When Sarwan Kumar dies, the song Kandhepe Kaavar (load on the shoulders) from the film Sarwan Kumar is played during the scene. In this way, film songs and local classical songs are used to stir specific emotions among the audience and many are moved to tears. With the technological inputs of the Internet and laptop computers, Dev Persad, the sound researcher and presenter said that he could access any song, musical score, or any other recording at a moment’s notice to include in the Ramleela. (2015). The tassa is the main background music that is played each day during the presentation and is also played for the majority of scenes throughout the eleven days of the Ramleela.

Ground Preparation, Props, Costumes, and Infrastructure

Design of the Ramleela performance arena

There is no written code for the layout or design of the Ramleela playing area. However, it is semicircular with a diameter of 120 feet. Largely, the geographical layout depends on the compass position of India relative to the location where the Ramleela is to be held. Consideration is given to the fact that in the Ramayana, Ayodhya is located in North India and Lanka is located beyond the southern tip of India. Therefore, the same configuration is used in the open-air Ramleela Theatre at Sangre Grande. The theatre field design shows Ayodhya to the north and Lanka at the southern end of the performance area. Since it is important for the Ramayani/narrator to have a clear view of the playing arena, Ayodhya and Lanka, the command booth, which further houses the Ramleela guests and the kitchen, are positioned on the eastern edge of the playing arena. The Ramayani does not enter the playing arena; he remains in his special area in the command booth. In addition, he also needs to constantly communicate with the tassa ensemble; the group is housed in a special

LAYOUT OF SANGRE GRANDE RAMLEELA  ARENA COURTESY DEV PERSAD.  

  tent directly opposite the narrator. The rest of the area outside of the ringed playing arena is allocated for spectators. Traditionally, audience participation in the local Ramleela celebrations in Trinidad was limited to standing room. However, in recent years, the SGRC has provided seating accommodation under large tents around some of the playing areas. At Sangre Grande, a bleacher — open stand, is usually erected in the northwestern corner of the ground to accommodate viewers wishing to be so seated. Between Ayodhya and the tassa group, “Mount Kailash” is located where one can see Lord Shiva reciting the Ramayana to his consort, Devi Parvati. Besides, various ashramas, houses, and other paraphernalia are erected at strategic points in the playing arena and these are used as staging areas for the sages, munis, rishis, and Bharat in Nandigram. A forested area is also created to symbolize the journey of Rama through the jungle. A center pole is planted just behind the center stage from which streamers or buntings 60 feet long are strung to the outer fenced area and attached to flagpoles making a diameter of 120 feet for the circular playing field. These buntings flare out as a canopy over the performance area.

In the early days, from 1991–1996, all the palaces, ashramas, stages, and other structures for the Ramleela were constructed from bamboo and wood, but after 1996, such structures were gradually replaced with steel structures using nuts and bolts,  which make sturdier structures, are easier to assemble and dismantle. Some of the props are also made of sturdy wire frames (wire-bending skills) and these have lasted many years. Steel structures are also constructed for the musicians (the tassa men) who accompany the play each day.

Sanded playing outfield

Invariably, the field is grassy and muddy and this creates severe problems for the cast members. Over the years, the SGRC has devised its own methods to overcome this and once the playing arena is marked off, huge loads of sand are brought in and layered on the field to create a cushion against the muddy outfield. This works well for the cast members, especially for the several fight scenes that take place on the ground or floor area.

A stage in the middle of the Ramleela arena

An innovation that began with this group and quickly spread to other groups is the stage erected in the middle of the field on which major scenes are portrayed. When it was first introduced in 1991, there were strong objections from some of the elders and some of the other Ramleela groups. This innovation has helped the narrator in directing the attention of the audience to important aspects of the proceedings in a central spot where the major scenes take place. Some very important scenes that would have otherwise been portrayed in the palaces are brought onto the center stage for ease of performance and better audience viewing. Numerous other scenes are portrayed in different parts of the arena, according to where they abound in the Ramayana. For example, if Rama meets someone in the forest, the meeting takes place in the forest, but depending on the extent and importance of the scene, it may be shifted to the center stage for better viewing. Similarly, if a scene such as the Kop Bhavan scene with Kekayi must take place in the palace, the narrator mentions its location but transfers it to the center stage. Members of the audience have appreciated the use of the center stage as it enables them to view many scenes that would otherwise be difficult to view, being staged in partially hidden locations.

Over time, some of the other Ramleela groups have also adopted the middle stage in the open-air Ramleela grounds.

Ramleela Camp Life (and the making of props and costumes)

In the early years of the Ramleela (1991–1995), when activities were located under one roof, there was a feeling of a big family coming together to get an enormous job done. Camp life was the most enjoyable aspect of the Ramleela for many people participating in the event. They met new people, socialized with friends, exchanged jokes, learned new skills, showed off their talents, learned to work with others, shared their skills, and offered other forms of support for the group. The camp atmosphere resounded with the busy, noisy hum of industry as volunteers went about their tasks. There were hearty conversations as one could hear chatter here, a discussion there, a saw cutting across the divide, a hammer on the other side, a minor argument over a procedure, serious debate about new matters, a spoon knocking on a pot in the kitchen, and an exclamation somewhere about a finished product, be it a crown or a piece of uniform. There was room for everyone, from the skilled to the unskilled and semi-skilled.

Pt. Bhownath Maraj explained that there were a few doctors from India, working at the nearby Sangre Grande District hospital who frequented the camp and shared the following sentiments “it was a welcome sight to see everyone—men, women, children, teachers, doctors, clerical workers, laborers and the unemployed —eating, chatting, enjoying pleasantries, all working together and getting the job done without any thought of caste or racial division.”  By 1996, the camp was split into two locations due to lack of adequate space in one compound. The effigy of Ravana and most of the props were constructed at one site while the costumes were made at another site. The sites were about six kilometers apart. With this relocation some people lamented that the atmosphere of “family togetherness” was lost; nevertheless, much of it was retained at both camps, and there was always an exchange of personnel. Everyone came together, however, for the bagging and papering of the effigy of Ravana. Regarding innovations in the production of costume, Kamaldaye Daniel explained that as far back as in 1991, the group used carnival style wire-bending to produce certain props such as horses, alligators, boats and birds. Modern methods of screen printing are also used for the soldiers’ uniforms.

Effigy of Ravana at Sangre Grande

Many people consider the burning of the effigy of Ravana as the highlight of Ramleela at Sangre Grande. The height of the effigy at Sangre Grande has varied from 55 feet to 75 feet during the last twenty-five years. Each year a group of young men, helped by volunteers from the area, undertakes the construction of this demonic figure. Working for at least four hours each evening, the effigy is constructed within sixty days. In the 2015 Ramleela, Devanand Ramsubhag, who has been playing the role of Ravana for the last fifteen years, led the team to construct Ravana’s effigy.

Effigy of Ravana at Sangre Grande being hoisted erect at left, and burnt at right.

They use bamboo, wood of varying sizes, bags (jute or plastic), steel, staples, nails, heavy brown paper, discarded paper bags used for storing cement, glue or flour paste, paint, and other materials. Bamboo is the main material used to construct the effigy. It is estimated that over 200 plastic feedbags, 10,000 staples, 500 cement paper bags, and 100 bamboo poles (split)  are used annually in constructing the effigy.

Sangre Grande Ramleela Committee and Its Link to the Formation of the National Ramleela Council of Trinidad and Tobago

SANGRE GRANDE

In 2015, the president of the National Ramleela Council of Trinidad and Tobago, Mrs. Kamalwattie Ramsubeik stated in an interview that there were thirty-nine Ramleela groups registered with the council.

Location of some of the major Ramleela groups in Trinidad. Map courtesy Kamalwattie Ramsubeik.

The SGRC was formed in 1990 but due to the attempted coup d’état the Ramleela for that year had to be canceled. Their first Ramleela festival was held in 1991. In late 1990, an application was sent in the prescribed format to the Ministry of Culture requesting for financial assistance for the Ramleela to be staged in 1991. Sometime later, the Ministry of Culture contacted the Secretary-General of the SDMS (Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha), Mr. Satnarayan Maharaj, with a request to verify the existence of the SGRC and whether it was a registered branch of the SDMS. The Secretary-General took the matter further and requested a meeting with the SGRC with to deliberate on the contents of the letter that he had received from the ministry. At the meeting, the president of the SGRC, Primnath Gooptar, indicated to Mr. Sat Maharaj that the group had learned that there was a financial allocation for Ramleela by the Ministry of Culture and the group had thus applied for funding for its project. The Secretary-General suggested that other Ramleela groups in the country should be informed and encouraged to apply for such financial assistance. After further discussion, it was proposed that an invitation would be sent out to all Ramleela groups to attend an urgent meeting at which the information would be shared.

A historic moment for Ramleela in Trinidad. Attendees at the formation of the National Ramleela Council of Trinidad and Tobago, 1991. Primnath Gooptar, who was elected first President of the Council, is fourth from left in back row.

The meeting was held at the Maha Sabha Headquarters, St. Augustine, in early July 1991. Ten groups, including the SGRC, attended that meeting, which was jointly chaired by Mr. Mahraj and Primnath Gooptar of the SGRC. A decision was taken at the meeting of the participating groups to form a National Ramleela Council, with Primnath Gooptar as its first president.. There were no restrictions to any Ramleela group joining the council.

The National Ramleela Council (NRC) was founded in 1991 at the headquarters of the SDMS. All this transpired because of SGRC ’s application to the Ministry of Culture. Pt. Bhownath Maraj indicated, “we are very proud of the role the SGRC played in the eventual formation of the National Ramleela Council. It is out of that application that we had sent to the ministry in 1991 that the NRC eventually became a reality. In addition, we are elated that our president, Dr. Primnath Gooptar, was elected to chair the First International Ramleela Conference held in Trinidad in 2013.”

 In 1995, at a special meeting of the NRC, at the Divine Life Temple, Chase Village, Chaguanas, the council felt that it had become relatively self-sufficient and decided to de-link itself from the SDMS. It declared itself independent of the SDMS and continued with the name National Ramleela Council. In 2001, the words “Trinidad and Tobago” were added to the name of the council, thus changing to The National Ramleela Council of Trinidad and Tobago. It must be noted that both in 1995 and 2001, a new organization did not come into being. The organization that had been formed in 1991 continues to exist and works under a different nomenclature —the National Ramleela Council of Trinidad and Tobago.

Conclusion

As an exercise in religious, social and cultural expression, the Ramleela of Sangre Grande demonstrates the continuing creativity of a people who trace their foundation to the early indentured immigrants and their “Estate Ramleelas.” Their Ramleela is not only about their history or their historical context, but it is also a celebration of their presence in Trinidad and the contemporary trajectory of their progress as a people.

The Ramleela of the SGRC characterizes the objective presence of a new reality in a cosmopolitan society communicated through an event that connects diverse cultural, social, communal, religious, and ethical perspectives derived from the nation’s colonial and postcolonial history mingled with their own unique regional and historical antecedents. At Sangre Grande, the Ramleela has fused elements of traditions with the environment to establish new relationships, both regionally and nationally, and thereby generate new significance not only for the festival and its organizers but for the nation as well. The Ramleela, although Indian in origin, fits into their accepted world and forms a natural part of life at Sangre Grande in Trinidad.

Several aspects of the Ramleela at Sangre Grande are similar to the traditional open-air theatre. However, many changes, which are highly influenced by Western ideas, have been implemented over the years to modernize its presentation and make it appealing to the audiences in Trinidad. The most traditional aspects of the Ramleela at Sangre Grande is the chanting of the verses of the Ramayana in Sanskrit and Hindi, thereby linking the performance to the Hindu holy text. Also, traditional Sanatana Dharma rituals are performed and the costumes are also kept true to the time period of the avatar of Rama. Interestingly, however, the group has included within its repertoire of rites, several locally developed rituals and ceremonies, such as Dee Baba and a mixture of influences of Afro-Trinidadian lore and Hindu traditions brought from India. These rituals are purely local and seem to have no bearing elsewhere in the diaspora.

During the last twenty-five years, the group has instituted several changes, some of which deviate from the traditional lore while others seem more utilitarian. Significantly, the group has departed from the traditional starting dates for the Ramleela to one that is of convenience to them in a Western society. They have moved away from the traditional practice of constructing edifices made of bamboo to fabricated ones using steel, nuts and bolts, and PVC pipes. The group seems to have entered the modern age when in 1993, it was the first Ramleela group in the country to allow women to play major roles in the Ramleela. This was a paradigm shift from the earlier years when only men participated. Another very important break with tradition is the group’s insistence on moving away from the caste-based selection of characters for major roles. Boodram Sookdeo stated in an interview (1991) that “In the early Ramleelas in Trinidad, there was an insistence on Brahmin boys playing the major roles of Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, Shatrughana, Ravana and Sita and that has not changed.” The group has now opened its arms to non-Hindu members of the community and allows Christians and Muslims to participate in the Ramleela. Anyone, regardless of race, whether East Indian, Chinese, Afro-Trinidadians or mixed can take part in the Ramleela. The participation of a large number of children in the Ramleela distinguishes this group’s production from all other Ramleelas in the country.

Most of the narration is in English to appeal to the local audience, which is usually multicultural. This is a major change from the early days when the narration was done entirely in Hindi. The group has further included filmi songs as background music for several Ramleela scenes and Bollywood-influenced dances as filler or ‘item’ numbers, and this is a major departure from the traditional folk songs that formed part of the early Ramleela presentations in Trinidad, up to the 1980s. The Bollywood-influenced dances, however, are not copied from Hindi films, but are choreographed locally, using Hindi film songs. In terms of costumes, the group has instituted several innovative ideas such as wire-bending and screen printing in its production line.

The group has instituted huge street parades which temporarily move the presentation away from the Ramleela arena to the streets of the nearby town center. This differs greatly from the earlier Ramleela presentations. The institutionalization of a stage in the center of the open-air Ramleela arena is yet another important change that marks this group’s journey from traditionalism to modernization.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

INTERVIEWS

Baboolal, Elizabeth. 1991, August 27. Personal Interview. Sangre Chiquito. Trinidad.

Daniel, Kamaldaye. 2015, February, 10. Personal Interview. Sangre Grande, Trinidad.

Daniel, Lennox. 2015, May 22. Personal Interview. Sangre Grande, Trinidad.

Persad, Dev 2015, February 22. Personal interview. Tamana, Trinidad.

Phillip, Bartholomew. 2015, February 22. Personal interview. Sangre Grande, Trinidad.

Pt. Bhownath Maraj. 2015, February 10. Personal Interview. Sangre Grande, Trinidad.

Ramcharran, Nandlal, 1991. Personal Interview. Plum Road, Trinidad.

Ramsubeik, Kamalwattie, 2015, February10. Telephone interview. St. Augustine, Trinidad.

Sookdeo, Boodram. 1991, June 18. Personal Interview. Sangre Grande. Trinidad.