Whilst several Hindu cultural groups and religious organisations are in support of the establishment of a centre for the hosting of annual Ramleela celebrations in Trinidad, there is the hope that they would be consulted before construction of any such site begins.
Ramleela celebrations will commence in many communities on Friday. The event is held during the weeks leading up to Divali which will be observed this year on November 13. It is one of the more popular religious festivals on the Hindu calendar in Trinidad and Tobago and traditional groups in villages including Dow Village, Avocat, Matilda, Cedar Hill, Palmiste, Barrackpore, Sangre Grande, Chaguanas, Felicity, Penal and Carapichaima are expected to stage Ramleela re-enactments. The festival, which draws thousands of spectators to different venues all across the country to see the religious folk drama, is staged by over 30 groups who participate in the ten-days of performances.
Ramleela is a dramatic re-enactment of the life of Lord Rama, which ends in a ten-day battle between him and the ten-headed Ravana, as described in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Brought to the West Indies by East Indians when they came as indentured labourers in the post-Emancipation era, over 165 years ago, this play is considered the oldest open-air theatre in the Caribbean. It waned in popularity in the 1970s and 80s, but today has grown tremendously, with about 35 Ramleela sites, and has become more organised.
Finance Minister Larry Howai, during his 2013 budget presentation, said infrastructure is being put in place for developing the Arts and Creative Industries. The performing and visual arts, the literary and fashion industries, architectural design and software industries, the Minister said, are being encouraged to become world class. The proposed establishment of a Ramleela Centre falls under the government's plans to boost the performing arts and according to the Finance Minister will contribute to the continuing development of the arts and culture of society. The Minister said, "The culture shift to arts and creativity would mean, not only having world class artistes but also mean that such artistes would have sustainable livelihoods. Additionally the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Investment is now playing a key role in the development of this sub-sector. The soon to be established Ramleela centre with its street theatre will contribute to the continuing development of the arts and culture of our cosmopolitan society," Howai said.
The centre is to be constructed at the Divali Nagar site and would train participants for the East Indian religious festival of Ramleela. Various stakeholders are in full praise for the Centre; however, they are hoping the government will see it necessary to consult with them before important infrastructural plans are set in motion. Kamalwattie Ramsubeik, President of the National Ramleela Council of Trinidad and Tobago (NRCTT), said while her organization has welcomed the opportunity for a Ramleela Centre, she is concerned that her organization, as the national body responsible for Ramleela groups was never consulted on such plans. Over 500,000 people attend Ramleela each year. Ramsubeik said the Centre is long over due; however, she said the proposed Divali Nagar site is not appropriate to facilitate such a Centre.
According to Ramsubeik, "We should be very much a part of any type of development or discussions. We play a key role in the development of Ramleela. The Centre is a long awaited move," she said. Ramsubeik, who is also the head of a popular Ramleela group, said the NRCTT has applied for ten acres of land situated at the Sugar Museum and Heritage Village at, Brechin Castle, Couva. If successful, the NRCTT plans to construct a Ramleela Complex which will consist of performing area (both indoor and outdoor), an archive, a museum, a resource centre, a teaching centre, a dormitory and other facilities to promote and develop Ramleela in T&T and the Caribbean.
"It would be like a regional training complex. Trinidad is one of the more active countries which stage Ramleela re-enactments. Ramleela in Trinidad is unique and very much alive and highly developed. In Guyana it has died. There are some re-enactments in Surinam but not as active as Trinidad. We are happy that a centre was mentioned but we have our proposal and this is what the council would like to see as a Ramleel a Complex.
She added: "Our site is ideal because historically Ramleela was developed and originated from the rural sugar villages. The Divali Nagar is not an appropriate site. The Ramleela Complex will serve as a resource centre and can host performances year-round. We want to make it economically viable. Every year there is a range of activities; Ramleela develops communities. The community level Ramleela will remain. People are involved in all aspects -- music, stage, tent, chairs, craft, special effects, dance and costumes; so it develops communities and this is what we need in this country. We need to develop something that is beautiful and something which interests young people. In one group you have over 100 players. There are lots of skills involved including social and psychological activities,"Ramsubeik said.
"There are many people instrument al in keeping Ramleela alive. Our Council is a major organisation and therefore whatever developments are going to take place especially on behalf of the government we feel that this body should be included in planning and development of Ramleela ," she added.
Meanwhile, Maha Sabha Secretary General Sat Maharj, said his organization is also in the dark with plans for a Ramleela Centre. He said his organization is not involved in the construction of any Ramleela Centre. He said he has not been consulted. In fact his organization his over the past years staged their own activities in schools. "My organization and our pundits have not been consulted. I cannot see any government ministry involving itself without with Rameela without reference to the Maha Sabha and the pundits of the Maha Sabha who are the experts of the Ramleela. They have to consult with us and tell us what they hope to achieve and whether it falls within the concept of our religion; they cannot simply decided on their own ministerial level what such a centre will need," Maharaj said.
Maharaj said there are many dimensions to Ramleela. He said the religious festival would need a specific model to properly facilitate each dimension. "In previous festivals players lived on the compound where Ramleela takes place; they go on fast during that period because of the great significance. It is art; it is craft acting; it is also very deeply religious in nature. It's a religious episode from the Ramayan, one of the most famous scriptures in Trinidad.
Majaraj said the magnitude of the Ramleela re-enactment should be recognized. He said it costs his organization over $400,000 to stage. "We use the local expertise. Everything we do we do it locally. We consult the expertise of Carnival stakeholders to show us about wire and bamboo bending. We have the religious deities like Hanuman, built at the mas camps and the Rrawan which is fabricated in steel," Maharaj said. Through Ramleela, Maharaj said children are being taught religious and ethical values that are lacking in the school curriculum.
On October 24, Maharaj's organization will launch Ramleela on Debe Recreations Grounds where he said a 75 foot-tall effigy of the evil king Rawan will be installed. Following the launch, Ramleela re-enactments will be staged by students of various pre, primary and secondary schools in over 60 venues across the country.
Minister of the Arts and Multiculturalism Dr Lincoln Douglas could not be reached for comment.