Richa Srivastava,Lucknow: Bollywood actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui may have faced objections over enacting the
role of a Ramlila character, but popular folk theatre in his native Uttar Pradesh has a strong tradition of exemplifying Hindu-Muslim unity onstage.
The inter-community bond dates back to the medieval times of nawabs who patronised the arts in a big way and continues till today. In many places, Muslims play key characters in annual Ramlila shows put on during the Puja season, that are a dramatic retelling of the battle between Rama, the Hindu god, and Ravan, a Lankan king. In fact, in many UP towns and villages, Muslims are top members of committees that manage the Ramlila shows that typically culminate on Vijayadashami day.
Nawazuddin was forced to pull out of the Ramlila in his hometown Budhana in Muzaffarnagar district on Thursday, after protests by right-wing organisation, Shiv Sena. The 42-year-old actor was all set to essay the role of Marich, who is Ravan’s uncle.
The protests against Nawazuddin’s participation belie the syncretic character of UP’s Ramlilas. Here is a glimpse of the state’s famed Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb, where aspects of Hindu and Muslim religions mingle during social and cultural occasions:
Majid Ali is a busy man during Navratri season each year. Collecting funds, coordinating with artistes and making arrangements, Ali is the backbone of the Ramlila played each year at Mumtaz Nagar, just 8 km from Lord Ram’s birthplace Ayodhya.
The village in east-central UP has a rich Ramlila tradition of more than half a century. Breaking all barriers of religion, the Ramlila here is hosted by Muslims — with a lot of pride and enthusiasm.Ali is president of the Ramlila Ramayana Samiti, under whose banner the Ramlila is hosted here each year. “Our ancestors started the trend a good fifty years ago in order to ensure celebrations during Hindu festivals since our village was predominantly Muslim,” he reveals.
“They started it with the aim of sending a message of communal harmony. That’s what we try to do till date.”
In its 52nd year now, the collaboration of sorts is a custom now. Though Hindus enact key roles such as Ram, Sita and Lakshman, Muslims in the locality happily don the others. Children queue up to ask for side roles.
“We respect all religions and thus select Hindus for the lead roles,” Ali says. “This is because there are daily prayers of these characters—and people touch the feet of the actors doing them; they also perform their arti.”
Most of the other roles, including that of Jamvant, Jatayu and Meghnath, are performed by Muslims. “They do it with perfection,” Ali gushes.
The major contributions for hosting the Ramlila come from the Muslims. Be it lighting arrangements, costumes or stage management, the community is integral to the theatre.
The members of the organising committee comprise people of various professions and income groups. They include doctors, engineers, businessmen and shopkeepers.
It’s not only Ramlila, most festivals in the village are imbued with religious unity. There is Krishnalila during Janmashtami, while Diwali and Holi celebrations are always an inter-community affair. Roza ifttars during Ramzan are the same.
“While Ayodhya has of late remained in the news for its communal clashes and differences, we at Mumtaz Nagar are not moved by anything,” says a proud Ali. “There have been so many times when Ayodhya was on fire, but we continue to celebrate our happy moments together.”
At Bakshi Ka Talab in Lucknow, Salman Khan and Arbas Khan have been playing Ram and Laxman for the many years now. They are brothers in real life as well — and have not missed a single chance to play these key roles in the Ramlila despite their busy study schedules.
“Both are college students, but this is one time when Ramlila is their priority,” says Shabir Khan, director of the local Ramlila. “The brothers do not miss the rehearsals.”
Not just Ram and Laxman, Muslims play other key roles in the act, including Lankan king Ravan and the Sita’s father Janak.
The Hindu-Muslim bond at Bakshi Ka Talab Ramlila dates back to 1972 — the year the show started. “Before that, people of Bakshi Ka Talab would go to Itaunja to see the Ramlila. That was around 10 km away,” recalls Nagendra Singh Chauhan, a member of the organising committee.
Muzaffar Husain, a doctor posted in the area, along with then gram pradhan, Maiku Lal Yadav, are credited with starting Bakshi ka Talab’s own Ramlila. “Since then, Hindus and Muslims have together played the roles of Ramlila characters,” says Khan.
No communal clash far or near has affected their Ramlila, say organisers.
When the Babri Mosque was pulled down in Ayodhya in December 1992, people of Bakshi Ka Talab feared a break to their Ramlila festivities. In the subsequent Ramlila, however, a Muslim played a key character. If anything, there was more non-Hindu participation.
“Dr Mansoor, son of Dr Muzaffar Hussain, played the role of Ravan. Mohammad Soaib played Angad, Asid Ali played Hanuman and Sabir Khan played Kumbhkaran,” Hakim Raza Shadab, a member of the management committee, rattles of the names. “The message was clear for everyone: nothing can affect our bond and our Ramlila here.”
There have been times when Ramlila overlaps with Ramzan. “The show will be briefly halted for iftar,” reveals Khan. “The people playing Ramlila characters will offer namaz and join the iftar. The audience will sit silently, waiting for the iftar and namaz to be over. The show will resume.”Aishbagh Ramlila
As the state capital’s biggest and the oldest show, the Aishbagh Ramlila will witness the participation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi this year on Dussehra.
The Aishbagh Ramlila ground was donated by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula who was deeply impressed by Lord Ram’s life and ideals. The ruler donated 6.5 acres land and promised state assistance in organising the programme each year, the documentary proof of which still exists with the organising committee.
“Notably, when Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula donated land for Ramlila, he also gave an equal amount of land for the Eidgah, right across the road,” says present-day Lucknow mayor Dinesh Sharma, son of late Kedar Nath Sharma ‘Paadha’ who headed Shree Aishbagh Ramlila committee for nearly 70 years.
The Ramlila ground and the Eidgah stand face-to-face, presenting a unique example of a composite culture. The Lucknow Nagar Nigam looks after the arrangement of sound and electricity for the Ramlila every year.
History enthusiast Yogesh Praveen, who has special interest in the culture of Lucknow, says the Aishbagh Ramlila is said to have been started by poet-saint Goswami Tulsidas of the 16th-17th century. “A group of men capable of enacting the episodes of the Ramayana were brought from Ayodhya to Lucknow. They performed the Ramlila, which attracted the Nawabs who took great interest in it and promoted it,” he adds.
According to Praveen, an expert on Awadh culture, says, Ramlilas in the region are impossible without the support of local Muslims. “It is always the Muslims who make effigies. The reason is that they are the ones who have expertise in doing bamboo-stick and kite paper-design works,” he notes. “In Lucknow, the Ravan effigy is invariably made by a Muslim artist.”
YP Singh, director of Ayodhya Research Institute, says Ravan effigies and Ramlila masks are crafted by Muslim artisans. “In Allahabad, Moradabad and Auraiya, there is no dearth of Muslim artisans involved in making masks for Ramlila,” he adds.