Thinking About Tradition:
The Ramlila at Ramnagar
TRADITION AND AUTHENTICITY
This essay sets out to examine the Ramlila at Ramnagar but together with that it also sets out to reflect on how that is to be done. In mapping out the answers, I hope to be able to say something about traditional Indian theatre, about our relation to it, and about the act of writing about it.
The Ramlila at Ramnagar is important to us today not only because it is based on the Ramacharitamanasa^ a central Hindu text which provides among other things a sort of sentimental education to a vast number of people in northern India; nor indeed because the performance is spectacular; but because the lila in performance says something to us about ourselves.
Yet with what means are we to discover the several things it says? What categories are we to use in order to describe, analyse and understand traditional Indian drama? In what way are we to write about it; is there an authentic Indian way to deal with Indian tradition? Indeed, is there an authentic Indian tradition?
The word authentic, in the sense of being genuine, of undisputed origin, is tied up with ideas typical to post-colonial cultures— ideas about identity and roots; and these themselves are understood within the conventional polarities between east and west. To assume that there is something authentically Indian is also to assume that there is something essentially antagonistic to the True Tradition. The question here is of the basis of these categories and what goes into forming them.
When the word authentic is used in the context of traditional Indian theatre, the reader can guess however hazily, what it might mean — the non-mimetic, the symbolic, the strictly codified, the musical, the ritualistic theatre tradition. The category is so vast as never to be seriously violated; most traditional theatre one way or another fits this description. In the fitting however, eccentricities, changefulness, history, experience are summarilly obliterated; forms are first and foremost authentically Indian and only after that are they anything else.
Categorizing cultural artefacts or traditional forms as being authentic is to level
This is the mtoductory chapter of my book. Actors, Pilgrims, Kings and Gods The Ramlila at Ramnagar, Seagull, Calcutta, 1988