In the run up to Navratri every year, Girgaum Chowpatty beach in Mumbai undergoes a makeover of mythical proportions. A massive stage is erected in its centre, surrounded by bamboo fences and kitted out with bright lights. Large painted backgrounds featuring dense forests and palaces appear. Evening practice sessions begin and the call of stagehands and sound technicians fill the air with their “Check, check…1, 2, 3”. Every day, another piece is added, until the stage is finally ready for the annual Chowpatty Ramlila, a city tradition that is equal parts heart-warming and hilarious.
Navratri may not be as big a celebration in Mumbai as it is in Kolkata and Ahmedabad, but the re-enactment of the Ramayana over the nine days before Dussehra is a treasured city experience for me. There are other productions to watch in the city—Ramlilas at Azad Maidan and Shivaji Park are very good—but they don’t beat watching an army of monkeys build a stone bridge across the ocean, with my toes in the sand, a cool breeze on my face, and the sound of the Arabian Sea in the background.
To me, the Ramlila is about simple joys: feasting on sev puri, tucking into butter-drenched pav bhaji followed by bottles of cold chocolate milk, and then grabbing a kala khatta gola before finding a spot on the sand to watch the show. The audience, I have realized over the years, is as entertaining as the performance. There are large families, canoodling couples, migrant workers yearning for a slice of the life they left behind, and lots of young children. Some stare intently at the stage, others try to escape their parent’s iron grip to run towards the water. The air is filled with laughter and calls of the audience loudly directing the gods on stage.
As dusk settles on the city, actors in colourful costumes and props—shiny gold crowns, large bows, and menacing gadas or maces—transport the audience to mythical lands. Ram, Lakshman, and Sita struggle through exile in the forest, Ravan kidnaps Sita and whisks her away to Lanka on his flying chariot, and Hanuman sets Lanka ablaze. Gods, demons, golden deer, and giant vultures flee and stomp across the stage decorated with large sets, their voices booming across the beach.
Invariably, there is also some technical glitch, causing dialogues to get garbled or somebody’s mic to go off, but that’s a part of the show’s charm. A few years ago, my dad and I happened to catch a performance depicting Ravan’s death. In the confusion of everything happening on stage, the actor playing Ravan didn’t realise that he’d been shot. It was only when a man dressed as a monkey yelled, “Ravan let jao, teer tumko lag chuka hai,” (Ravan lie down, the arrow has hit you), that the actor finally fell to the ground, dramatically clutching his chest.
Despite the sometimes comical moments, the performance brings back fond memories for me. As the scenes play out, I can hear my thatha’s voice narrating chapters of the Ramayana to me as a child. He would tell me Ram’s story when he put me to sleep at night, filling my little head with images of these characters. Watching the Ramlila decades later is like seeing my bedtime stories come alive.
My favourite part is when Ravan is burned on Dussehra, the day that marks the end of Navratri. When the flame is lit, fireworks within the effigy are set off, mingling with the lights of Mumbai’s glittering skyline. It is a fitting ending to a show that’s filled with flaws but full of heart. Much like Mumbai itself.
Where Girgaum Chowpatty, Mumbai. There are also shows at Azad Maidan, near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, and Shivaji Park in central Mumbai.
When Sun October 2-Tue October 11, 2016; starts around sundown.
Kamakshi Ayyar is a former member of NGT India's digital team. She is partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.