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Ramleela brings 'family feeling' to aranguez

Monday, October 20, 2014
Members of the Om Shakti Mandir perform their very first Ramleela play on October 16, inside their temple in Aranguez. PHOTO: MARCUS GONSALVES

Ramleela rehearsal was in full swing at the Om Shakti Mandir in Aranguez. A modest, beautifully decorated temple just a stone’s throw away from the Aranguez Savannah, this Hindu temple, several decades old, is nestled at the corner of Park and Coronation streets, right next door to another temple—indeed, at least four or five temples service this bustling Aranguez community where small businesses such as car parts shops, garden stores, hatha yoga classes and the nearby Samaan Tree Bar rub shoulders with neighbourhood family homes.

Community members from as young as nine and as mature as 45 were all preparing for their first Ramleela on Monday night at the mandir.

While some youths were still trying to remember their lines, a young girl solemnly read out the narrator’s parts, and an older granny shouted out sage advice about the timing of songs: “Sing that one during the garlanding!”

Other cast members coached their fellow actors on how and where to walk on stage; and how to mime picking up Shiva’s bow as if it weighed a ton.

Passionate, fiery lines alternated with gentle, shy ones and more modulated, persuasive tones, often broken up by laughter as the cast worked to get it right.

While other Hindu temples may use big casts to perform long plays over several days (based on longer stories from the Ramayana), the Om Shakti community preferred to start simply, with a cast of just 15 who are enacting a very manageable 45-minute play based on “dhanush baan”—which refers to the story of how Lord Shiva’s bow gets broken.

“It’s not the same play that each temple will do; different temples select what they feel they can portray,” explained Indarjit Ramkissoon, who has been president of Om Shakti Mandir for the past 20 years.

An impressive array of marble murtis (religious statues) from India inscrutably watched over the fun proceedings: Shiva the cosmic destroyer, elephant-trunked Ganesh, the loving Lakshmi, devoted Hanuman with his monkey face, and a blue-skinned Vishnu (preserver of life) were among the deities who seemed to give their blessings to the spirited members of this temple, who were in the process of adapting a centuries-old oral tradition brought from India to Trinidad.

Ramleela literally means “Rama’s leela” or play. It is a dramatic folk play about the life of Rama as described in the great Hindu epic the Ramayana (which means: Rama’s Journey).

The original Ramayana was a 24,000-couplet epic poem by the Sanskrit poet Valmiki. Rama’s journey is like a complex morality tale in which characters, through their decisions and through many situations, explore human values, behaviours and duties; do you act to preserve good order, or do you encourage chaos in the world?

Narad Jacob directed the Om Shakti Mandir’s Ramleela this year. “When I was younger, we used to do a much longer version of the play and we would rehearse for six months,” said Jacob, “but this version is much shorter; kids have school and lessons, so we’ve been practicing on weekends and evenings for a few weeks … Our play focuses on King Janak and his daughter Sita.

“One day, Sita picks up Vishnu’s bow as if it was as light as a feather. No one else in the palace can do this. So her father decides, when the time is right, Sita will be married to the prince who is strong enough to also lift and string Shiva’s bow.”

In rehearsal, the play merrily proceeds to show three prospective suitors who all try, and fail (in funny ways) to do this.

Finally, a wise spiritual guru asks Ram (who is really an incarnation of god as Vishnu) to lift the bow. He lifts it, and strings the bow with such force that it snaps. There’s more to the tale—but that’s for the audience to see.

The play is religious, yet it’s also a great vehicle for community spirit in this temple. The players not only have fun, but the older ones make costumes (“I grow up doing this, from doing weddings”); some make props like the archer’s bow (from plywood instead of bamboo), long beards, and glittering sequinned crowns.

Other players sing and make music; and everyone shares their opinions on all matters of production in a spirit of friendly, sometimes chaotic harmony, led by the adults.

The temple itself attracts a solid 130 members a week for regular Thursday pooja (6 to 8 pm), and many more come for big festivals. The temple’s spiritual leader is Pundit Balram Persad. And the temple seems like an anchor for lots of other kinds of community life: one table near the entrance is piled high with gleaming trophies won.

There are prizes for storytelling, cricket, choral speaking, arts and crafts, group bhajan singing, Gita quizzes—even a prize for tug-of-war.

Teenager Tasveer Sumair, 18, from San Juan, said he helped to renovate the temple six years ago, and has been coming back ever since.

“Why?” I asked.

“Is a good feeling. Like you does need it. It’s like being around your godfather, your uncles and aunts, lots of people coming together at different events…Is a family feeling.”


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