2013 Ram Leela Rich in Color and a Tale Told Well to a Full Auditorium


From left: Dharminder Dargan as Hanuman, Irfan Karim as Lakshman, Vipin Sharma as Ram, Kusum Sharma as Sita, and Madhu Miriyala as Ravan.  Photos : Bijay Dixit





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By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: This past Sunday, October 27 marked four years running that the Ram Leela has unfolded on stage at the University of Houston’s Cullen Auditorium on the University Park campus on the city’s southeast side.  It also marked the ninth year that the dancer, choreographer and Indian classical dance guru Kusum Sharma has been involved in making this ancient tale celebrating the victory of Good over Evil become a trademark festival for the Bayou City.


Ram leela 2013 performers at Cullen Performance Hall on Sunday, October 27. Photos: Bijay Dixit

After it was first performed four years ago at Cullen Auditorium, Sharma has expanded the theatrics each year. This year, Sharma has brought Ram Leela to life through her Kalakriti Performing Arts and judging from the full hall on a Sunday evening, the public’s reaction has been one of great appreciation for her art form.

For Sharma, a Punjabi and native of New Delhi, and her husband Vipin (who plays the role of Ram), the Ram Leela has been so much of a part of her upbringing that she has a natural affinity for bringing the ritualistic unfolding of Valmiki’s epic story of the Gods, as conceived for the television serial by Ramanand Sagar. She loved the Fall season in Delhi when a crispiness in the air brought out people in sweaters to see the versions produced by neighborhood temples with local actors lip-synching their lines as they acted out the roles.

Vipin and Kusum Sharma as Ram and Sita.

Vipin and Kusum Sharma as Ram and Sita.

“Part of the fun of directing was to see how the actors went through their lines, or certain scenes had to be ad-libbed as well as the actual scenes that acted out well”, said a cheerful Sharma by telephone from her home. She was still a little hoarse from directing the 100-plus cast members, stage hands and more volunteers. It took her and the entire cast over three-months to prepare for the three-hour long performance that they gave this past weekend.

Prior to the start of the program, Sunil Thakkar of Music Masala entertained the audience with his special style of humor and overall joviality. The show opened with Kusum Sharma giving a brief speech and appreciation to all the shows sponsors and participants. The sponsors were invited on stage to light a multi-tiered diya stand and the Indian Consul General Parvathaneni Harish (who attended with his wife Nandita) said a few words congratulating the organizers. He appreciated the fact that the Ram Leela and other festivals were celebrated with such community strength in Houston. Proclamations from the Mayor Annise Parker and the Governor Rick Perry were read two young performers.

Leading up to the opening act, Ram and Lakshman were led down the center aisle to the stage as the audience showered them with petals. Sharma was able to pull together a fine production of the Ram Leela because she has a fine eye for the pageantry and complexity of the Ram Leela. As a director and choreographer, she has been able to bring out the best in the performers: two who stood out are Dharminder Dargan who, with his larger build fit the role of Hanuman to near perfection and Madhu Miriyala who played the part of Ravan well, especially with his curled up moustache and wide-eyed stares.

This year, there were many scenes which were more fully developed than when they were told in previous years and these brought a better understanding of the essence of the epic story. For example, the scene with Shabri was better explored as she explains her devotion to Ram as was the scene with Kevat who rows Ram, Lakshman and Sita across the Sarayu river and asks for no payment. The marriage of Ram and Sita was well portrayed, as well the pivotal scene when Surpanakha (played with great emotion by IAN’s own Vanshika Vipin) has her nose cut. Also better played were the roles of Ram and Lakshman (Irfan Karim), with both having speaking roles as opposed to previous years when they had few lines.

Midway through the victory scene, once again this year, cannon-blasts of confetti sprayed the first few rows of the audience.  There were also the three fire-dancing acrobats and blasts of sparkler fireworks on each side that have become a feature from the last three years. And there were pyrotechnics with two last two blasts before the entire cast came forward for their final bows, as the audience rushed the to the front rows to shower them with adulation.