On our third night in Mumbai, we went to a live theater performance at the National Centre for the Performing Arts. The theater is in an upscale neighborhood a couple of miles from the ship. We took a taxi and went out for a fabulous dinner at a fancy restaurant, then walked to the play. It was great to do something with Mumbai locals rather than just “curated” experiences aimed at tourists.
The play “Jai Shri Ram” is a modern adaptation of the Ramayana, which is a 2400-year old epic poem that is foundational and well known to every Hindu. The 3.5 hour play is entirely in Hindi! It’s also spectacular live musical theater with fantastic costuming, loud music, singing and dancing, and loads of special effects. Like an over-the-top Broadway production. We had both read about the story so we figured we’d just kick back and enjoy the sights and sounds even though we couldn’t understand the dialog.
It’s a kind of origin story for the god Ram and his god-wife Sita. They are exiled, have a long and difficult journey, Sita is abducted and then rescued, and Ram is finally restored and crowned king at the end.
It was amazing! The larger-than-life characters are literally gods who entered the play from the back of the hall. They spoke with huge booming (amplified) voices and their costumes were spectacular – Ram literally glowed. He had a golden bow and giant crown like a halo. The set was spare but backed with a giant video wall that created rich backdrops and sometimes mystical encounters with various deities. The music and dancing and performances were outstanding, and we had little trouble following the raucous action. Kind of like the Old Testament in the style of Marvel Comic Universe!
At the beginning, a Master of Ceremonies welcomed the audience and led them in a chant of Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram. The enthusiastic audience, many with school-age children, joined in with loud chanting and clapping.
During the production, we were surprised at many points when members of the audience rose, shouting and applauding during long speeches by some of the characters. Even without the language it was clear that there was more going on than enthusiasm for a classic show well produced.
At the finale and curtain call, the audience was wild with applause. A famous movie star in the audience drew paparazzi and was invited to join the actors onstage. We were exhausted and returned to the ship.
We used our local internet access to read up some more on the play, and we were disturbed to learn that we had unwittingly been drawn into an ethnonationalist phenomenon that is crackling across India.
More than 100 years ago, Ghandi’s writing dreamed of a future for his people using the ancient ideal of the Ramayana’s Hindu society. Insisting on nonviolence, he used the phrase “Sita-Ram,” merging the personae of the male and female deities in a powerful and gentle motif. Of course, at the culmination of Ghandi’s struggle, India did gain independence from British rule, but also suffered the rending religious partition between India and Pakistan.
Beginning in the 1990s, Hindu nationalists began turning the phrase “Sita-Ram” into “Shri Ram” (Lord Ram) and gradually “Jai Shri Ram” (glory to Lord Ram) has abandoned any subtle or gentle androgynous nod to Sita. The much more masculine phrase is a call to arms, an assertion of Hindu nationalism and a rejection of the multi-religious and multi-ethnic culture that has pervaded India for millennia.
The phrase “Jai Shri Ram” is loudly chanted by mobs that storm universities and defile mosques. It has been a rallying cry during lynchings and in some cases chanted while beating Muslims to death. It’s a widely-recognized symbol of intolerance used by India’s ruling BJP, the party of Prime Minister Modi.
We felt a bit sullied having spent three and a half hours in a play that doubles as a propaganda rally for religious nationalists.
Besides India, there’s a wave of nationalist and bigoted political movements in today’s world that has swept up Hungary, Poland, Brazil, the United States, and Italy. Autocratic leaders lean into a “divide and rule” strategy that’s unsettling reminiscent of the British Raj. They appeal to majorities that define swaths of society as “The Other” and then mobilize hate to build their own political power.
Nevertheless, I’m glad we went to the play.
We probably gained more insight into Indian society during that evening than in six days of walking and driving and hiking and boating through the many places we visited in Mumbai. We hung out with locals rather than tourists. We learned an ancient scriptural story from the Axial Age. We had a wonderful dinner and saw a spectacular show. And we learned that the dynamics of power and nationalist hate and groupthink transcend geography.