An unfamiliar sense of calm greets you inside the green rooms of the Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in these chaotic times. An event attended by Prime Ministers and many different VIPs over the decades, this is one of the rare venues which has the permission to organize Ram Leela events amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Director Shobha Deepak Singh herself had a close encounter with the virus earlier, but she continued to help the actors and dancers prepare via video conferences. Year after year since 1957, actors of different ages, experiences, and even nationalities come together to make this annual play possible – 2020 is no different. Frequent temperature checks and the fact that all the actors stay on the same premises ensure that all precautions are being taken.
Towards the right side of the amphitheater is the men’s green room. The monkeys, sages, and soldiers occupy one large general room lit with yellow lights and large mirrors. Next to them is a smaller room for the two protagonists – Ram and Laxman, who have larger mirrors and a large fan to keep the temperatures cool. Rama, bare-chested, is busy applying eye makeup, while Laxman, in a vest, paints royal insignia on his forehead. Rajkumar Sharma, whose name literally means ‘Prince’, plays the titular character of Ram. But was Ram always Ram? Rajkumar started his journey as Bharat, then moved on to portray the roles of the golden deer and the heroic Jatayu, after which he got the titular role, which he has been playing for over ten years now. He is also a teacher at The Kendra. While this is going on, Kaikayi enters their room for some assistance with her make-up. Ram offers to help. While Ram and Laxman are seen as ‘the ideal sons’ across India, our Laxman is quite the prankster. Ram shares a story of how sometimes Laxman fake-coughs to see the reaction on his co-actors’ faces. Laxman laughs as Ram goes to get some tea.
On the other end of the stage is the women’s green room. A more colorful and lively place compared to the men’s room, the actors are busy tinkering around with the jewelry and the ornaments of the play. Madhvi Rastogi has been playing the role of Sita for the past two years. Much like Ram, she has also moved up the ranks to play the leading lady of the play. She laughs as she remembers that in the past she has even played the character of a tree! On her left is Radharani, a Venezuelan actor-dancer specializing in the Odissi dance form, born to parents who were devotees of Krishna and hence the name. She plays multiple characters in Shri Ram.
Next to the women’s room is a smaller chamber where Ram and Hanuman, two characters with some of the most elaborate get-ups are seated. Both of them, other than playing these two major characters, also play some smaller roles in the play. Swapan Mazumdar, who plays Ravan also plays the roles of Vashishtha and Parashurama. A veteran who has been playing several characters at this event over the decades, Mazumdar narrates incidents from the Ramayan which show that Ravan, despite all his flaws, was a wise man. He points at his Ravan-Crown and comments that this is the heaviest crown in the play – but it makes him appear much larger than life and stand out from the rest. He also gives a quick insight into how coconut oil is the best option for removing heavy makeup. Upon request, Swapan spreads his arms and does his signature laugh. A bell rings. Ravan gets back to his makeup, he informs that two more of these bells and Shri Ram would start.
Back in the men’s room, the brothers of Ayodhya are ready for the play to begin. Ram and Laxman, complete with their royal ornaments, crowns, and yellow-green garments are having a conversation about the play. Two bows hang near their door. As the second bell rings, Ram finishes his tea and offers to pose for the camera as he pulls the string of his mighty bow and fires an invisible arrow at the evil Coronavirus before heading out. On his way out he remarks that a modern-day Hanuman would bring the covid vaccine similar to how he brought the Sanjeevni Booti in the epic.
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