Shastriji holds on to his long tail, made of straw wrapped around a bamboo pole, as he gets into the rickshaw. With him are the 19 men of his troupe, all crammed into three autorickshaws, as they dash off from stage to stage in Ayodhya – everyone wearing full make-up and costume. They all know that this is the season to make some money. It is the month of Dussehra.
Vinayak Shastri plays the role of Hanuman. He is also the director-manager of the Ramkatha Singing Party, which he started in 2002. When not on stage, 60-year-old Shastri teaches at a primary school in Ayodhya. His family owns farmland on the outskirts of the city, and he uses his share of income from the land to run the Singing Party. During the month of Dussehra, his troupe performs on at least three stages in Ayodhya every evening, from 6 p.m. to around 2 a.m, each show lasing two to three hours. That’s their night job for these few weeks. In the winter months of January and February, they usually perform three times a week. The rest of the year there are no performances.
Shastri collects Rs. 3,000 as advance per show from the local clubs or mohalla committees that book a show. Another Rs. 2,000-2,500 promised after the show rarely gets paid in full. The troupe members are paid Rs. 200-300 per night, depending on their seniority. Shastri uses some of the money to pay for the transportation, and for the costumes and props. All of these are packed and stored away in big metal trunks in a local dharamshala during the off-season.
The Ramkatha performers of Ayodhya occasionally sing and act in dusty and dilapidated auditoriums, but their real platform is makeshift stages in old mohallas – with a torn curtain, smudged landscapes as backdrops, and occasional wisps of smoke made from blown talcum powder.
The colour of the Ramkatha – tales and chapters from the Ramayana enacted and sung with vigour and pomp – has changed over time, just as Ayodhya too has changed. Vinayak Shastri knows that his performance is now part of a bigger politics. "Ram ka naam ab sab ka naam ban gaya,” he says – Ram’s name has now become everyone’s call.
The youngest member of Shastri’s troupe is 12-year-old Akshay Pathak, who has played the role of Sita since he was 10. He studies in Class 7, but looks like he might be in Class 3. Noticing his slight stature, Shastri, who knows the boy’s father, a priest in Benipur village of Uttar Pradesh’s Faizabad tehsil, recruited Akshay. Shastri thinks that Sita has to be frail because she needs to descend below the earth – the finale of his troupe’s performances.
A sharp-featured Vijay, who works as an electrician, plays Ram. Vijay is around 24, and has been with the troupe since 2013. He is from Ayodhya town. Suresh Chand, around 52 and also from Ayodhya, plays both Valmiki and Ravana. Some years ago, Suresh used to sell paan-beedi from a tiny enclosure just beside Ayodhya railway station; now the Ramkatha seems to be his only source of income.
Before the katha starts, two transgender persons – known to everyone only as Dolly and Bhatti – come on the stage and sing of the supremacy of Ram in high-pitched voices. The cymbal, dholak and flute players strike up a tune. Then the curtain goes up. Ram-Lakshman-Sita are sitting on a sofa against a backdrop of a river, a large moon and a blue deer.
Ganpat Trivedi, the 54-year old lead singer, sings the first hymns from the Valmiki Ramayana. He lives in an ashram in Varanasi and comes to Ayodhya every year during the Dussehra month to perform in Vinayak Shastri’s troupe. The rest of the year he earns a living by teaching boys in an orphanage how to sing hymns.
A diya kept on the stage draws the audience, sometimes 2,000 strong. Many take turns to come on the stage, pick up the lamp and move it in a circle around the epic trio, as a ritual aarti. Trivedi continues singing. Coins and notes offered before a performance mean a lot to the Ramkatha group, who are sometimes not paid in full by the organisers.
Then Ram, Sita and Lakshman take over the stage. Hanuman’s long strides fill the limited space. The air reverberates with Ravana’s impassioned dialogues.
And then a local leader comes on the stage along with his followers. He rotates the diya around a by-now tired Ram. His followers shout ‘Jai Sri Ram, bolo Jai Sri Ram’ and ‘Dar ke nahi marenge, mandir vahi banayenge’ (‘We won’t die in fear, we will build the temple there’). Reasserting their intention to build a Ram temple at the long-disputed site in Ayodhya.Ramkatha performers sing at night, under harsh lights tied to bamboo poles. This harshness speaks of the present time. At the other end of the road – on Naya Ghat near the Sarayu river – a huge bamboo effigy of Ravana awaits immolation.