Lucknow, Sept. 26: Mohammed Salim looks into the mirror as he adjusts his mukut before stepping on to the stage to play god in his locality’s Ram Lila.
“Ram does not belong to Ashok Singhal and the VHP’s brand of Hindus alone. For centuries, he has ruled the hearts of people of Oudh irrespective of their creed,” the 19-year-old from Mausamganj says.
Oblivious of the hate-Muslim campaign generated by VHP’s Ram temple agitation, Salim and his friends are giving final touches to their show that begins with the Dussehra celebrations tomorrow.
“We have been practising for over a month,” Salim’s cousin Ashwaq, who plays Laxman, chips in. “We even made him learn Sanskrit to make him look like a scholar,” he adds, pointing towards the sturdy-looking, moustache-sporting Gufran Bhai, who has bagged Ravana’s role.
“Religion is no bar when it comes to participation in Ram Lila,” says Mohammad Sultan Ghazi, secretary of the Mausamganj Ram Lila committee. He is proud that the show organised by his group in Bakshee Ka Talaab on the outskirts of Lucknow is unique.
Ghazi remembers the good old days when Hindus and Muslims would participate in each other’s festivals with equal zeal. “Since my childhood, I have seen my family members and close relatives participate in Ram Lila. When some Muslims questioned the practice after the demolition of Babri mosque, we told them this was a part of Oudh’s Ganga-Yamuna culture.”
Nadira Khatoon, who has been co-ordinating the Mausamganj Ram Lila for the past two decades, is convinced that Muslim participation in Hindu festivals has become increasingly important in these troubled times. “This shows that the mosque-temple dispute has failed to erode the spirit of Hindu-Muslim amity,” she says.
A unique feature of the Bakshee Ka Talaab Lila is Muslims play all the characters.
The group does not take any financial help from anyone. “We raise contributions ourselves and the arrangement of the stage, lights, sound and music is made by the members of the community,” Nadira says.
She remembers her father, Muzaffar Hussain, used to organise Ram Lila in Rurhi village, 30 km from Lucknow, way back in 1972. “My father was a doctor and everyone in that Muslim-dominated village respected him. After initial resistance, the villagers supported him. After his death, the villagers have continued Ram Lila celebrations uninterrupted,” the proud daughter recounts.
Since the Rurhi Lila is held a month after Dussehra, Nadira has brought some “experts” from her village to help organise the show in Bakshee Ka Talaab. Sabir Khan, who is producing the Rurhi Ram Lila, plays Dashrath in Bakshee Ka Talaab. “I have learnt quite a bit from my experience in Lucknow and this will definitely improve the quality of our Ram Lila in Rurhi when I go back,” he says.
The Mausamganj Lila attracts a large Hindu audience every year, claims Ghazi. They perform aarti of the Muslim actors and shower rose petals on them.
“I was shocked to seek people trying to touch my feet when I first played Ram. But now I feel touched,” says Salim. “Some of my friends have even nicknamed me Salim Ram!”
Oudh’s social historian Ramesh Dixit attributes the practice to the mixed culture of the region that continues to thrive despite sporadic conflicts.
“The practice of Muslims participating in Ram Lilas and Hindus worshipping Muslim tombs is very old in Uttar Pradesh,” Dixit says, adding that and even now the Ram Lila Committee of Varanasi, which organises the oldest Ram Lila, has at least one Muslim member.