Virus dampens festive cheer

While the oldest and most popular Ramlilas stand cancelled, smaller idols, slashed budgets, restricted entry and live-streaming of rituals comprise the modest bouquet of muted Durga Puja celebrations across the Capital

The upcoming festive season will be a shadow of its usually glorious self because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the oldest, largest and most popular Ramlilas in Delhi have been cancelled, smaller idols, restricted entry, live- streaming of rituals, slashed budgets and abandoned cultural events will culminate in muted Durga Puja celebrations across the Capital.

Both renowned as much for the pomp as well as the traditional hues which draw thousands to sprawling venues each day when on display, Ramlilas and Durga Puja intersect on shashti or the sixth day of the Navratras. The Puja commences on this day and the combined festivities conclude together around Dussehra.

Ramlilas are scheduled to commence on October 17 and Durga Puja on October 22. While the former will conclude with Dussehra on October 25, Durga Puja will end a day later.

This October, however, both organisers and visitors are caught between the health scare due to the COVID-19 pandemic on one hand and lack of precise guidelines regarding organisational matters related to them to be issued by the Delhi government on the other.

So, Ramlila and Durga Puja organisers have decided to knock on the doors of local temples with larger-than-usual compounds, banquet halls and homes with reasonable room in their surface-level stilt parking for smaller renditions of what were, till last year, larger-than-life galas.

A file photo of Dussehra celebrations at Ramlila grounds in the Capital.


Big cancellations

“Ours is the oldest Ramlila in Delhi. This will be the fourth time that it is being cancelled in our 170-year history after 1948 due to the Partition, 1962 war [with China] and 1965 war [with Pakistan]. This [COVID-19] is a global problem and even the Olympics had to be deferred,” said Rajesh Khanna, general secretary of the Shri Ramlila Committee.

The SRC stages the event, which has its origins in Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s decision to patronise it during his reign, at the Ramlila Maidan near Delhi Gate followed by a parade of all the characters of the Ramayana through the bylanes of Old Delhi.

“Given the economic condition due to the pandemic, we did not even seek donations from patrons this year. We are still in the process of figuring out what to do and will probably telecast previous episodes from our programmes,” Mr. Khanna said.

Dheeraj Dhar Gupta, general secretary of the Shri Dharmic Lila, which has been organising the event at the Madhavdas Park in the Red Fort grounds since 1924, making it slightly younger than the Shri Ramlila Committee but the second oldest in the Capital, said that his committee too was mulling a similar alternative. “There seems to be no other choice than cancelling the event this year. We will exhibit episodes of the Ramayana instead,” he said.

Waiting for directives

While some Durga Puja committees are still waiting for government directives, most have already chalked out guidelines to be followed. The Delhi Durga Puja Samiti at Kashmere Gate, which is also the oldest in the city, will not be worshipping an idol this time — a first since 1911.

The organiser, Som Prakash Mitra said, “We are literally going back a hundred years this time considering this is the first time since 1911 that instead of worshipping the idol a “ghot puja” will be done. It has only happened for the first two years since this puja’s inception in 1910.”

“Even our practice of getting theatre artists and bands will be discontinued this year. Due to the current situation, we are also not forcing people for a donation. Everything will depend on the voluntary donations made by the members,” said Mr. Mitra.

The Matri Mandir in Safdarjung Enclave will also be dependent on voluntary donations and online streaming of rituals this year, said committee member Debasish Saha.

“While all rituals will be followed to the core there will be no idol this time. It will be a low-key affair and all rituals will be streamed online. This time, we are entirely dependent on voluntary donations and have also decided to donate the money among the needy, including the dhaakis and our regular cooks who are out of work this time,” said Mr. Saha.

The little fix

Ashok Goel Devraha, general secretary of the Delhi Dharmik Sangh which is an umbrella body that facilitates the organisers of Ramlilas, said traditional patrons were as certain of the fact that “something, no matter how small” needed to be organised as they were of the cap of 100 persons per religious gathering prescribed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, subject to the go-ahead of respective State governments, not being amenable to the staging of traditional celebrations.

“It is more or less clear that the Ramlila will not be able to manifest itself at the usual scale; so, we will either shift the venue of the celebrations from larger ones to temple courtyards, banquet halls and even large houses with stilt parking if required,” Mr. Devraha said.

“The consensus among organisers, so far, is that those who can make arrangements for small performances in such settings with volunteer actors should go ahead and do so. Gatherings revolving around the recitation of the Shri Ram Katha can be organised,” he said.

Rajesh Gehlot, chief patron of the Dwarka Sri Ram Leela Society which has been a traditional crowd-puller to its venue in Sector 10 for decades and saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi in attendance last year, said a cap of 100 people on an event which used to accommodate as many as 150 artistes on stage per se and provide employment to 1,000 people in total every year was just not feasible enough to work around.

“Ramlilas are not just about the stage and the performance but also the traditional mela [carnival] around them. Since the number of people permitted is even less than the artistes we are used to seeing on stage, we are thinking of organising a televised exhibition of the Ramayana at a banquet hall,” Mr. Gehlot said.

Not more than 12 people

The Purbanchal Bangiyo Samiti, an umbrella organisation of 38 Durga Puja samitis located across East Delhi has also decided to not allow more than 12 people at any given point during the day.

“The entire day will be divided into slots which people can pre-book. In each slot not more than 10-12 people will be allowed for darshan. Even those who visit the site will not be allowed to go up to the idol. Provisions will be made in a such a way that they can view the idol from the gate. Those below 16 years and above 65 years will not be allowed,” said Mrinal Kanti Biswas, general secretary of the Samiti. Mr. Biswas added that of the 38 pujas, only 12 were having idols made this time.

“On an average, each puja committee collects around ₹12-₹15 lakh each. This time for most it has been slashed to ₹1-₹1.5 lakh each. At the Milani Durga Puja in Mayur Vihar, whatever money is collected from our regular members will be utilised in contributing towards the weaker sections of society by distributing ration, sanitisers and masks,” said Mr. Biswas.

Budgets have also been slashed at the C.R. Park Kali Mandir as opposed to previous years. While last year it collected an estimated ₹1 crore, this year it has been brought down to ₹5-₹6 lakh.

Stating that several crowd-control measures will also be undertaken, Prodip Ganguly, a managing committee member said, “In regular times, the daily footfall would range between 1.5-2 lakh daily. It will become very difficult to restrict some and allow others. So it has been decided that no one will be allowed. Approximately, 100 people who are directly involved with the rituals will be present within the temple premises.”

“We have also decided that unlike other years, general bhog will not be distributed. It will be delivered to those who pre-book it in sanitised tiffin boxes. While all rituals will be followed and it will be live-streamed,” said Mr. Ganguly. The Arambagh Puja Samiti which usually rents a CPWD land will be relocating this year to a private hall.

Shanker Chakravarty, president of the Samiti said, “Considering the fact that celebrations have been scaled down, we have decided to book a private hall. Usually, the footfall used to be around 20,000 per day, but this time the responsibility is on us. Hence we decided to impose restrictions on the number of people who can attend. Only members and their families will be allowed. The priest will be kept in isolation and no devotee will have direct contact with him.”

Mr. Gehlot pointed out that while the most that visitors would confront due to the reduced scale of celebrations this year was disappointment, for innumerable others it would mean irrevocable economic hardship.

Actors, idol makers affected

“At least a thousand people are involved in every big Ramlila: the actors and stage artistes, those who make the three effigies, those involved in the arrangements and the ones who set up stalls for visitors. Smaller celebrations due to the pandemic will, unfortunately, mean no business for them this festive season,” he said.

Nitin Chauhan, now 34, has been playing the character of Demon King Ravana since he was 18 years old. A builder, director and talent manager by profession, Mr. Chauhan jovially said he comes from “a family of Ravanas”.

“My father, Santosh Chauhan has played Ravana in several Ramlilas followed by my elder brother Naveen. Having a family meal together these days ends up in disappointment and tears for us because we feel empty since we won’t be able to perform this year,” he said.

“While we can do with the fact that we will not be able to get contracts for performing this year because we are economically stable, I have had to send junior artistes from my group to events all over the country so that they can make ends meet. Some of them have gone to Ayodhya to participate in small Ramlilas to get by,” Mr. Chauhan said.

Idol makers, among others, are the ones critically affected by the curtailed celebrations. Gobindo Nath, a third-generation idol maker has received an order of eight idols as opposed to the 50-60 orders he received in previous years.

For Niranjan Chitrokar, an annual visitor to the Capital from West Bengal, the situation has been similar. “I used to bring a team of 12-13 people three months in advance due to the number of idols we had to make. This time only my son is accompanying me. Usually the earnings we made from this season helped us survive the entire year. With the condition this bad I don’t know how we will survive,” he said.


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