Ramayana and Mahabharata started as epics. There were no religious connotations then; they were stories. There was a chance of these epics remaining purposeful, philosophical and contemporary if we had not done what we did to them. The first was the iconography of the characters portrayed. Some, like Malayalam filmmaker G. Arvindan’s Kanchana Sita, were reflective of those times in terms of what they wore or the way they may have lived. Then Ramanand Sagar got hold of the epic and turned Ramayana on its head. The epic characters now wore nylons and were turned into cardboard caricatures. Compare that to Peter Brooke’s Mahabharata, which was recognised for its quality and the way it was presented. It was first staged in the open near an abandoned quarry.
Long years after Sagar’s calendar art characters were first aired on television, people have not got over them and we have never got back to talking about the ‘real’ Ramayana. What Sagar did on television through digital technology is being done on the various Ramlilas on stage with special effects to sell tickets. The same kind of technology is being exploited to enhance the appeal of characters. The costumes have become more garish. The make-up is better left unsaid. The sets have become bigger and thus more expensive.