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Ram-Ravan Samvaad: Modern day friends lead ancient rivalry at ‘Shri Ram’ retelling of epic

New Delhi: Dressed in elaborate costumes and makeup, they engage in an intense battle of swords and wit, combining choreographed steps of Kalaripayattu, Mayurbhanj Chhau and Kathakali before demon king Ravan reaches his inevitable doom.

Fierce combatants on stage and loyal friends off it, Rajkumar Sharma and Swapan Majumdar have long embodied Ram and Ravan, their retelling of the Ramayana depicting the victory of good over evil, of moral over immoral, of truth over deceit.

And while they bring the epic to life on stage, Sharma and Majumdar also bring in some nuance and profundity in their performances.

At Mandi House, the centre of Delhi’s theatre scene, Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra’s famed Ramlila is somewhat an extension of the lead actors’ emotions towards each other. Here, Ram’s heart is full of love for Ravan. And Ravan is not an evil demon but someone who is a scholar and seeking ‘moksh’, eternal liberation, at the hands of Ram.

“I don’t have any hatred towards the character of Ravan. I feel only love for him. For moksh one has to do everything, and Ravan did everything. He was a scholar, he was very knowledgeable,” said Sharma, without breaking character.

While Sharma, 52, has carried the bow of Ram for 27 years, Majumdar, 43, has lived and died the curse of Ravan for the last nine years. But they have been performing at the “Shri Ram” dance drama for almost 30 years.

For Sharma, the journey to becoming Ram started with playing the smaller role of Jatayu, the martial avian who died trying to save Sita from Ravan. Majumdar started off in the shoes of Laxman, the younger brother of Ram.

Their connection goes back nearly 40 years back, long before they had set foot on a stage.

“I would be incorrect if I say he is a very good friend. He is my elder brother. It is because of him I am here,” Majumdar told PTI.

Majumdar recalled that the two have known each other since school, when he was in Class 5 and Sharma in Class 11.

“As we grew up I started going to Ambedkar Stadium for football practice. I would pick Raju from the kendra while going to the stadium. Eventually I started coming here too with him and seeing him dance also got me interested in it,” Majumdar said.

Sharma added that Majumdar helped him navigate the confusing lanes of Delhi.

“I couldn’t figure out Delhi roads. I would only go to the university and come back home. So when I took admission in SBKK, Swapan would come to drop me. And as a friend and brother he would wait for me to finish my class,” he recalled.

An encouraging friend and guide in Sharma and an interested mentor in Shobha Deepak Singh, director and vice chairperson of SBKK, motivated Majumdar to start learning dance.

There was no looking back after that.

After working through different roles over the years, the duo settled into the two central roles of Ram and Ravan that have led them to develop their own ways to enact the characters on stage.

Playing their part in the retelling of the epic, made immortal by countless iterations and interpretations, the two friends have developed their own understanding of it.

Majumdar, a school dance teacher and ballet instructor when he is not playing Ravan, said the demon king of Lanka had to go to great lengths to attain liberation at the hands of Vishnu.

“ ‘Somebody who has cut the nose of my sister can’t be a mere mortal. It means I have to make him my enemy so he can kill me and give me moksh’. This is how Ravan felt. He was very intelligent in that sense,” Majumdar said.

Intense prep has gone into their performances.

While Majumdar uses his years of training in Kathakali to appear larger and more fierce than he actually is, Sharma has spent years honing the perpetual divine smile, indicating the omniscient nature of Ram.

Just one meal a day that includes a few carbs in the form of bread and a lot of fibre through vegetables, and a strict regime of exercise, meditation and the reading of scriptures has helped Sharma step into the shoes of Ram.

“Shobha ji asked me to keep smiling at all times because Ram didn’t have anything to worry about. He knew everything already, hence he always smiled. She told me to read, meditate and sit quietly alone to reflect on the character I am playing,” Sharma said.

From being a rowdy teenager in college to a calm and composed dance teacher, the journey has been long and arduous for Sharma but a transition he deeply appreciates.

“After I started playing Ram, I realised a life can be lived in this way. If one wishes to, one can live like Ram. If you can’t contain your anger, you are Ravan, if you can win over your anger, you are Ram. When I ask my students for anything politely I don’t have to ask it again. So if I can get things done by being like Ram, why do I need to become Ravan,” he asked.

The moral debate over the faults and virtues of Ram and Ravan is timeless, but for now Ram and Ravan at Delhi’s Mandi House work together to keep telling the tale of good vs evil.

They also tell the tale of a lifelong friendship, for those who want to hear it.

(Published 23 October 2023, 10:29 IST)

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