As actors or organisers, UP’s Ramlilas have always had a place for Muslims

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:

Mumtaz Nagar

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.