This composition sung during Rama’s sehrabandhi, once a part of many Ramlilas of Kumaon, has disappeared completely from the enactments. Sehrabandhi songs are sung in many cultures of North India, at the time when the groom’s head dress is tied, shortly before he leaves with the baraat or wedding procession.

Singers: Akshay Nagar, Sudhir Rekhari, Himanshu Joshi. Harmonium: Hemant Saikia. Tabla: Bhagwat Upreti

Yeh jashne aish ab Raghuvar mubarak ho, mubarak ho
Yeh sehra aapke sir par mubarak ho, mubarak ho
Mubarak ho, mubarak ho dulhan Sita maharani
Siya ko aap sa shauhar mubarak ho, mubarak ho.

Blessed be this celebration of luxury O Raghuvar.
Blessed be this adornment of marriage on your head.
Felicitations on Queen Sita becoming your bride.
A happy bridegroom like you to Siya our pride.

— Translation: Asad R Kidwai

“No one will directly say why the sehrabandhi is no longer sung, if you ask them they’ll change the subject but it is evident, the words are Urdu and it has an association with Muslim culture,” said Himanshu Joshi, who has documented the text of the bandish and a beautiful recording of it in his own voice.

Joshi, well-known today as the lead singer of the pioneering and popular band Indian Ocean and a Kumaoni himself, has spent more than a decade working on a film that captures aspects of the Ramayana in the region – from its history, aesthetics, regional variations, commerce to the aspirations of its patrons, those of its actors and its ritual significance.

“In our Ramlilas, staged in Delhi by Parvatiya Kala Kendra, when I played Laxman, Rama used to be Madad Ali Naqvi,” said Himanshu of a time when Muslim actors in Ramlilas did not make news nor were they necessarily presented as examples of our glorious syncretic culture.

“You started out playing the smaller roles, like the sutradhar, the kewat [the boatman who ferries Rama across the Saryu], Shatrughana, then graduate to Bharat, Lakshman, Rama and finally the most complex, Ravana,” recalled Joshi. While his connection to the Kumaoni Ramlila goes back to his childhood, it was as a young 18-year-old in Delhi that he first acted in a condensed version of the Kumaoni Ramlila directed by his uncle Mohan Upreti, a legendary name in the world of theatre music.

This was the Delhi of the late 1970s when, with the autumn nip in the air, the city’s cultural calendar would come to life. The Ramlila presented by the Parvatiya Kala Kendra (Centre for Arts of the Hills) set up by Upreti in 1968 was a central feature. As the name suggests, the Kendra became a centre for the music and culture of Uttarakhand (the state would only be formed 32 years later). Its annual production of the Kumaoni Ramlila was Upreti’s attempt to bring this historic, distinctive tradition of the hills to city audiences.

A production of the condensed Kumaoni Ramlila staged by the Parvatiya Kala Kendra in October 2002. Himanshu Joshi (right) is Rama, Nikhil Gupta is the other actor, presumably Laxman.

Operatic is the word used often to describe the Kumaoni Ramayana, one of the oldest enactments of the epic. It is thought to date back to 1842, when it was first performed in Badreshwara, a mohalla in the heart of Almora city, from where it spread to other towns, villages, neighbourhoods across the hills of Kumaon. The ten-day Ramlila is entirely musical, the dialogues are all in song and the compositions reflect the influences of different languages and genres of music.

“Each Ramlila committee keeps its compositions under lock and key but the love people had for my uncle made it easy for them to trust me and share their songs and experiences,” said Joshi, who aptly titled the film OpeRama.

Not only does the film document this rich tradition, it is also a reminder of how cities like Almora were once hubs of cultural exchange. At one point in the film, a patron of the Ramlila shows a costume of Jatayu (the vulture king who warns Rama of Sita’s abduction) and says it was inspired by a production staged by Uday Shankar, the renowned dancer. Shankar’s academy, the India Cultural Centre, was located in the heart of Almora and he in turn borrowed several performative elements from the Kumaoni Ramayana.

In a scene shot at the Laxmi Bhandar Hukka Club in Almora, Shivcharan Pande talks of how young children come for training so they may grow up to be able to perform different parts. These clubs were places where men would bring their own chillums or pipes and smoke off a common hukka, while discussing various topics including the staging of the Ramlilas.

Even beyond vignettes such as this, the real strength of this old style, linear documentary lies in the way the operatic aspect of the Ramlila is captured. Joshi’s knowledge of Hindustani classical music and the Ramlila help deepen the conversations he has with Kumaon’s writers, poets and composers such as Prem Matiani. So, for instance, when Matiani speaks of the many musical influences on the Kumaoni Ramayana from the classical to forms like the Rajasthani raga, Maand, both he and Joshi are able to sing a composition which reflects the influence.

A scene from a Kumaoni Ramlila. Credit: Himanshu Joshi

Similarly, when another Kumaoni stalwart, Shekhar Pathak, describes the extent of linguistic influences on the Kumaoni Ramayana – Avadhi, Braj, Urdu, Tibetan – the film presents compositions to illustrate the point.

‘‘I collected 494 music compositions from across Kumaon, I analysed each one and found that there were 105 core compositions based on specific raga and tala, then wrote out the notation structures for them,” said Joshi of a project that for him went beyond the making of a film. The collection of these songs is invaluable as several compositions such as the sehrabandi have altered or been dropped entirely.

The politics over Rama is around us today – and an epic that lends itself to innumerable interpretations and unique enactments of Rama’s play, the lila of Rama, has been confined into a narrow, polarising political framework, but one with a reach so extensive that a tiny town in the Himalayas should feel the need to drop a sehrabandhi.

For those seduced by the diversity of the Ramayana traditions, the need to see beyond such politics is evident. “The Kumaoni Ramalila was just one part of the journey,” said Joshi, who in the past five years has been filming performances and interviews with artists, historians, scholars, theologians for an ongoing project titled “Vignettes of the Ramayana”.

“While filming Yakshagana performers in Karanataka, I was struck by the amazing grasp the artists have on the text, staying within the structure, they are free to evolve their own arguments,” said Joshi. “So if on a given day, the actor playing Bali is a better one and his arguments more powerful even though he is slayed, audience applauds Bali and Rama must defer to him.”

This is all material he hopes will take the shape of a film reflecting the many Ramayanas of India and beyond.