In a village in Uttar Pradesh, Ramlila was a not a Hindu festival. It was an occasion that bonded Hindus and Muslims. For 50 years, Mumtaznagar Ramlila has been held in a Muslim neighbourhood, largely managed and enacted by Muslims.
However, things have changed in the last two years.
According to a report in The Times Of India, Muslims have been barred from playing main characters like Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman because they eat meat.
They have been now replaced by Hindus. Even if the Hindus are meat-eaters, they turn vegetarians during Navaratra.
A senior member of the Mumtaznagar Ramlila committee told TOI that many spectators worship the actors playing Lord Ram, Lakhsman, Sita and other gods by touching their feet and seeking their blessings. This rule, they said, has been put in place keeping in view the religious sentiment.
"Muslims continue to play smaller parts," he added.
It's a different story in Chandigarh.
Miraz Malik, a 17-year-old engineering student from a Muslim family in Manimajra, is portraying the role of Sita. For over two decades, his uncles have been playing prominent roles in the Ramlila.
The Ramlila committee at Manimajra, in fact, has three Muslim artistes, while the Garhwal Ramlila Committee in Sector 28 has two Muslim artists.
“Religion brings us together in the Ramlila. The boundaries which divided one community from the other in name of religion are fading away. Ramlila is one platform where tradition goes beyond religion”, Malik told Hindustan Times.
The Muslim artists reportedly abstain from non- vegetarian food and liquor during the Navaratra. They follow other rules, including sleeping on the floor, eating only vegetarian food, and avoiding onion and garlic.
Taj Ali, 35, has been playing different roles in Ramlila for two decades. “I have never hesitated to play the role of Hindu Gods since I have no different definitions of religion. It is due to narrow mindedness of few people that society is being divided," he said.