It was during the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s rule that the Savari Ramlila emerged as an important tradition in Old Delhi. When representatives from the Hindu community expressed their desire to celebrate Ramlila, the emperor not only agreed, but also funded the Ramlila extravagance which was accompanied by a joyous 10-day procession called the Savari. The celebration brought the neighbouring Hindu communities together and became one of the most important cultural events of the locality.
However, with time, the festival has slowly deteriorated to a pale shadow of its former self. More than half of the original inhabitants of Old Delhi have moved out as residential places have been converted into commercial hubs. The present population is not as invested in this age-old tradition. Lacking local sponsors and enthusiasm, the practice is slowly losing its prominence.
Bahadur Shah Zafar allowed the procession that symbolized Ram’s journey to traverse the entire city, including the Red Fort. The procession began in the afternoon and travelled from one temple to another till it reached its final destination—the Ramlila performance ground—in the evening. Late in the night, after the performance had ended, the Savari would return to the temple it had started from.
Seventy-year-old Yogeshwar Dayal, who is a former resident of the neighbourhood, and Akhilesh Dayal, who lives in Nai Sarak, have fond memories of the Savari of yesteryears: The procession would be at least a kilometre long and pass through many significant galis and mohallas of the walled city. It was led by horses, followed by camels, elephants and soldiers marching in uniforms tailored specially for the occasion. Next to follow were traditionally crafted carts with water dispensers that moved along the Savari, supplying water to the crowds waiting eagerly to get a glimpse of their favourite tableaus or jhankis. Troupes of musicians playing instruments such as the nafir and shehnai would lead these.
Each tableau depicted a scene from the Ramayan. The last one, which carried Ram, Sita and Lakshman, was followed by hundreds of hawkers selling teer-kaman (bows and arrows), masks, kulfi and so on.
In its glory days, local businessmen sponsored the major events. The brand 502 Pataka Bidi, for instance, became almost synonymous with the Savari in the 1980s. With locals’ enthusiasm waning, most of the big sponsors withdrew their funding.
The Ramlila performance still manages to attract financial and state support. It has a customary visit by the Prime Minister and the President on the final day, for instance. But the Savari itself is in a state of neglect. Before each season, the organizing committee is not sure whether it will be able to raise enough funds. Some local residents have even petitioned for government support, but with no result.
To alter this state of affairs, the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee is trying to promote the Savari this season. While there is no single big sponsor, a number of businessmen and shopkeepers, especially jewellers from Dariba Kalan, have made donations to help run the procession.
But the Savari, even in its worst avatar, ensures that there will always be enough stories for us to write about. What remains to be seen, however, is how these stories change.
During Navratri in the old city, scenes from the Ramlila are depicted on various jhankis or floats, that form the Savari procession. The Savari performance, which thrived for hundreds of years, just about manages to survive today, winding its way from Cycle Market off Chandni Chowk, through Dariba Kalan, Nai Sarak and Dilli Gate until it reaches the Ramlila Maidan. Besides the floats, the Savari consists of brass bands, musicians playing traditional instruments like tashe (kettledrum), nafiri (a small reed instrument) and shehnai, toys sellers and local heroes. Brahmanand Tyagi, has played Ravan for 31 years. Despite playing the villain, his popularity in Old Delhi is unparalleled. Ravan Tauji, as he is fondly called, shared his journey with the Savari.
Abhinandita Mathur spent time with Brahmanand Tyagi, the man who has played Ravan for 31 years. This is what she learnt.
How did you become Ravan?
In the summer of 1980, I had gone to the airport to receive a friend. It was here that the then head of the Dharmik Ramlila Committee spotted me and offered me the role. I was tall and big. Though I never had such aspirations but as someone who grew up watching the Savari, I agreed without any ado.
You were married at the time, what did your wife think about your new role?
She lived in Merrut at the time with the family. I didn’t tell her for many years and when she finally found out she was very angry. Worried about the impact this may have on getting our children married, she said it would be better had I become a crow instead of Ravan, at least face would be covered! Then, slowly she realized my popularity as she saw news clippings about me. She has never seen me perform live though.
Did you have to make any special efforts to play the part?
In the first year, I had to sport a fake mustache until I grew my own by the second year. There was a unfortunate incident with the fake mustache; on the final day of the Ramlila, we have many extras playing monkeys for Ram’s army. They jump around all over the Savari , tease Ravan and his army. One of them got too carried away, climbed my chariot and pulled my mustache. Sadly for us there were some presswalas around. The next morning we made it to the headlines with “ek mamooli bandar ne ravan ki mooch ukhadi’’ with a photo of the monkey in action. I still have the clipping somewhere. So I decided it was best to have my own. Today, the mustache is my trademark style. Even If I were to stop playing Ravan, I don’t think I can get rid of this.
You are a very scary Ravan, any old Delhi child would testify on being truly terrified of you. How do you feel when this happens?
I enjoy it. Children tease me till I’m looking away and the moment I look at them they get scared. I have a way of just moving my eyes that terrifies people. I’m glad I can be convincing. Perhaps that’s what keeps me going and people coming back for more.
You have been around for long time. You have seen the Savari transform. What are your thoughts on the change.
I cannot say enough about the glorious past of this Savari, its current avtar is not a patch on the old days, is all I can say. The problem began when the patrons, the residents moved out of the Old city to New Delhi. It’s impossible for people to take out time from their busy schedules. During the evening procession we still see a lot of crowd but we are in no illusion, those people are there to shop not to see us though we can tell they are amazed by the Savari. The night Savari was a special affair. There was a time when there were more people at night; the residents would show up in their best clothes for the night Savari and we would be on our toes for this insider’s affair. Now I can fall asleep on my chariot and no one would know. Things may have deteriorated but the Savari has managed to survive, I don’t think it will ever stop but if it does it will never come back.
Abhinandita is a Delhi based photographer and researcher.
For more on the Ramlila Savari in New Delhi have a look at our photo-essay!