Why the devil wears gold

The story behind the costumes at one of Delhi’s oldest Ramleela ballets


Ram-Sita, Laxman and Bharat seen with Hanuman and other members of the royal court.
Ram-Sita, Laxman and Bharat seen with Hanuman and other members of the royal court.

Shobha Deepak Singh, veteran artiste, director and vice-chairperson of Delhi’s Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK), loves to be surrounded by clothes that have a history. Dressed in a red-gold sari and adorned with multiple ornaments on the day we meet, she is not only ready for Karva Chauth, the ritual fast observed by married women in North India, but she also looks perfectly in sync with the exhibition of antique textiles she has put up at the kendra.

The exhibition is an annual feature. She sits amid old zari borders, slightly frayed but delightfully luxurious satin-silk chauda pyjamas, heavy temple saris some of which are half a century old, Banarasi textiles from a bygone era, the patterns of which may surprise and delight many a contemporary devotee of Indian weaves.

Since 1972, Singh has been designing costumes for the Ramleela that has been staged at SBKK for the past 59 years.

Ravana has been interpreted in the Kathakali tradition and his is one of the most vibrant costumes as well as makeup
Ravana has been interpreted in the Kathakali tradition and his is one of the most vibrant costumes as well as makeup

You look at Singh and the collection of her antique clothes and everything about Sita’s Banarasis, Ahilya’s dull cotton ikats, Ram’s opulent silks worn in the court of Ayodhya and Ravana’s fascinating Kathakali costumes matching the fiery glamour of Swarna Lanka (Lanka of gold) fall into place.

If you have had the opportunity to watch this rendition of the Ramleela at the SBKK, that was first scripted by eminent Hindi writer Ramdhari Singh Dinkar based on the Ramcharitmanas and which travels to different parts of India and abroad, you may agree that the ballet strongly influences its audience. One part is like comfort food that emanates from the familiarity with the tale we have heard or seen dozens of times since childhood and know the trajectory too well to be totally intrigued. All the same, there is something compelling about this epic story of devotion, fatherly love, greed, righteousness, doom and disillusionment.

This year when I watched the ballet which has been playing since 1957 in Delhi (dialogues are all in playback and the story is interpreted as a classical dance drama), it struck me how much the authenticity of costumes contributed to the production’s overall impact.

“About two-three years back, I changed the ornaments of the four brothers—Ram, Laxman, Bharat and Shatrughan to match a style I observed in Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings,” says Singh adding that she changes the costumes every few years. She buys old textile pieces and saris from those who wish to do away with heritage wear and keeps them all for a good day till she turns them into something for one of the many ballets she directs and designs for.

Interestingly, these Ramleela costumes are a relevant reminder of why Indians are so innately comfortable with mixing colours and fabrics, without any design or fashion training. It’s a part of our culture to wear blue with pink, or yellow with green or bring out silks for festivities and keep cottons as workaday wear. Long before designers began telling us that Banarasi is the new black of fashion or why wearing cotton as formal wear is about fashion elitism, we had a culturally sound sense about fabrics, colours, textures, their appropriateness and timeliness—if in a simplistic way.

Singh agrees that Banarasi silks with their decorative resplendence best suit Sita the Queen, that plain washed cottons are perfect for Ahilya and why she interpreted the costumes of the Rakshasas (demons) in red (rajasic for greed), black (tamasic for evil or recklessness) and white (sattvic for peace and happiness).

Jatayu’s costume is the favourite of costume director Shobha Deepak Singh.
Jatayu’s costume is the favourite of costume director Shobha Deepak Singh.

Jatayu at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, New Delhi
Jatayu at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, New Delhi

While Ravana’s splendorous Kathakali costume is the biggest attraction for the audience, even more than the yellow silks of the four princes of Ayodhya, it is the feathery, mesmeric, beguiling costume of Jatayu, the king of vultures, which is Singh’s personal favourite. “I love Jatayu’s feather and fabric costume, the poignance of the small role he plays as he gives up his life to save Sita from Ravana and the beautiful movements he makes as he writhes in pain,” says Singh. She adds that her next best is the costume of the golden deer. “I made it with synthetic leatherite on the top side and diaphanous gold tissue on the downside to give it textural play.”

Numerous Indian textiles have been used over the years to tell the story of good versus evil as in the Ramayana.
Numerous Indian textiles have been used over the years to tell the story of good versus evil as in the Ramayana.

“Gold stands for irresistible lure—Ram and Sita lived happily for 13 years in the forest till the golden deer robbed them of their happiness,” says Singh, explaining why the textures and colours of Ramleela costumes or anything that we call “antique” or “traditional” resonate with deeper meanings. “Next year, I will work on special costumes as it is the sixtieth anniversary of the ballet,” she says.

* The three-hour show of Ramleela from 6:30 pm every day at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra will continue till 9 November after which it will travel to other cities. Click here for more information.To buy antique textiles and laces from Shobha Deepak Singh, call her for appointments at 09811040105.

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