Ram Leela in America by Varsha Naik

 Ram Leela in America by Varsha Naik

In India the consecration ceremony of Ram Mandir took place recently. The nation celebrated Pran Pratishtha at the Ram Temple with aplomb. Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed the rituals along with team of priests led by Lashmiant Dixit ji to mark the iconic and historic occasion. But when the pooja was being performed in Ayodhya, Indians living in The United States of America were celebrating too.
Ram Leela was performed at the prestigious Umiya Dham Temple in Edison town in New Jersey by the artistic dancers of Navrang Dance Academy. 65 talented dancers and actors lit up the stage with their Ram Leela dance drama, directed and choreographed by Varsha Naik.

Varsha Naik

Varsha Naik, is director of Navrang Dance Academy, she is a highly awarded and respected name in the field of dance, dance education and Indian culture education in America. She holds various Indian folk dance camps and classes to create awareness about the rich Indian culture and heritage. She began the shows of Ram Leela in USA over a decade ago and performs it all over the country with her team of over 100 dancers and artist. Every year her show has a record of minimum 10,000 people in the audience and this year her Ram Leela was announced as the best Ram Leela in entire United States of America. I caught up with the highly creative artist and she spoke about her journey of starting the trend of Ram Leela in USA, excerpts from the interview:

How did the trend of Ram Leela begin in USA?
In India we celebrate Dussera and Diwali in various ways, Ram Leela is one such way of celebrating the auspicious occasion, all small to large grounds often are decorated to hold massive Ram Leela. People flock to catch the glimpses of the age old story narrated either through dance, music, drama or all the three. We know that Ramayan is a popular epic in India and Asian countries and is celebrated with aplomb too. But, it was not happening in USA, so some 15 years back my friends and me decided to bring it on stage. Earlier it was only through classical dances, but then 10 years back I changed it and made it with dance, drama and song so that more people could understand it better. Now thousands of devotees come together not just to see the dance drama but also bring their children to educate them about the Indian culture. Ram Leela in USA is a way of not just entertainment but also a way to educate the new generation.

How did it all start for you?
I have been directing Ram Leela since 2012. I first started as a volunteer teacher for Hindi USA where I choreographed a 10minute production. There I got many compliments and admiration for my direction and choreography and only 6 months later I got an offer from New Jersey’s biggest festival Dussehra festival to direct Ram Leela.

What message do you give through it?
My purpose and vision for theatrical dance and drama production is to raise awareness of our culture for the next generation to see and experience. This is the reason I was first so passionate about choreographing Ram Leela, so that American Indian kids can understand and learn. Reading the Ramayana or reciting the shlokas is one thing but seeing it being performed in front of one’s eyes is another, the children learn more by seeing Ram Leela.

From Ram Leela you moved on to other plays, how did that happen?
After the grand success of Ram Leela, I decided to make my career and become a pioneer of Indian Mythological theatre dramas. I directed Krishna Leela and got full support from the American community. New Brunswick Cultural Center offered and gave me grant to direct the production of Krishna Leela. After Krishna Leela I moved to Ganesh Leela too. In the USA we have a lot of opportunities to create an identity of our cultural background and understand the value of Indian culture. It’s been over a decade and uncountable shows that jokingly my close friends and family call me Varsha Leela Naik saying that I am now a Leela expert so Leela should be my middle name.

Who are the people you would like to thank in this long journey of yours?
I have a long list of people to thank, starting with Indo American Festival Chairwomen Mrs Chanchal Gupta, Raj Gupta and Atul Sharma, MS Tracy O Reggio, Sara Ferguson, Kavita Panday from New Brunswick Free public library. My artists of Ram Leela, our Ram Mr. Pradeep Gupta, Lakshman Mr. Shrikant Gavas, Sita Ms. Madhura Lohit, Hanuman Mr. Ajay Saupure and Ravana Mr. Harsh Mendiratta, who have been playing these roles and almost living these character for the past ten years. And my family who is always standing with me pushing me to do more.

What next are you planning and why?
My next plan is to create a platform for Indian mythological dramas as a storytelling in theater style, and have plays every month. My future plan is to take Ram Leela on Broadway and let the American people see and understand our rich Indian culture and values, I want to show the world that Indian is an ocean of heritage.

Why in particular do you focus on Indian traditions and folk art unlike all others who only do Bollywood?
Yes, I want to focus on Folk and Indian cultural dances only, the reason is very simple: everyone can dance and copy bollywood style dances, everything is available nowadays on social media too but folk and cultural dances need vision, and vision can’t be copied pasted. I have a vision to take Indian dances and theater dramas to a mainstream American audience. That’s why I want to do something which is out of the box, amazing and different. I do like Bollywood and other dance forms and I am also a certified Zumba instructor, but I have a soft corner for folk and Indian traditions.

Sandip Soparrkar holds a doctorate in world mythology folklore from Pacific University USA, an honorary doctorate in performing arts from the National American University, He is a World Book Record holder,
a well-known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honored with three
National Excellence awards, one National Achievement Award and Dada Saheb Phalke award
by the Government of India. He can be contacted on [email protected]


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