It’s for the 22nd year in a row that Jaswant Singh ‘Maata’ is playing Hanuman in the well-known Railway Ramlila held at Lucknow’s Alambagh Vegetable Grounds. “This has been a passion since childhood,” says Maata, who runs a catering business. Another Sikh, Swaroop Singh, plays Parashuram, and over the years, Shabbu Khan has been playing roles as diverse as Ravan’s sister Soorpanakha and Ravan’s brother Kumbhkaran. Vibheeshan was played last year by Zaheer Siddiqui. No wonder Vinod Bhutiyani, chairman of the organising committee, says this Ramlila is based on “sarv dharma samabhav”.
Started in an informal way by Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab in 1951, this Ramlila has a distinctly experimental touch, borrowing elements from the Parsi theatre tradition. “Instead of the chaupayian (couplets) from Ramcharitmanas, there is a lot of sher-o-shairi (Urdu poetry) and the acting style is loud and declamatory,” says Bhutiyani. And, even in the most divisive of times, various castes and communities have continued to participate in it with undimmed enthusiasm. “The atmosphere was never vitiated,” says Bhutiyani. All the actors, whether Sikh or Muslim, participate in the havan at the start of the Ramlila, sleep on the floor, eat vegetarian fare, and stay celibate for the ten-day period. “It’s not just about wearing a costume,” says Maata, “the performance has to be underlined with respect and dignity.” There are other Ramlilas in Lucknow, in the Sadar, Aishbagh and Chowk areas, where Muslims and Sikhs are known to play significant roles. Sanjay Srivastava, an academician, says this harmonious tradition is not confined to Lucknow, but is seen in many other parts of the state. The Ramlila in Sarai Harku, near Jaunpur, and in the Durvasa village of Azamgarh district are also acted out by Muslims. “They represent the Ganga-Jamuni sanskriti of our villages,” says Srivastava. And Bhutiyani says, “Art doesn’t have a religion and an artiste doesn’t have a caste. On the Ramlila stage we are all one.”