By: Ishmeet Nagpal
Dussehra is celebrated all over India with great enthusiasm. I remember going to the big melas in Punjab where Ravana’s effigy was burned while the crowd cheered- a crowd of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims- united in honouring one of the greatest stories of good vs evil. It was the symbolism of burning away the evil and hate inside ourselves.
Recently, a video was circulated on social media where Punjabi songs had been incorporated into Ram Leela. While it is a light-hearted video, it also warms one’s heart to see two languages and cultures assimilating. Similarly, Urdu versions of Ram Leela had been popular in Lucknow, though it’s not seen commonly now. The earliest Urdu translation of the Ramayana, by Munshi Jagannath Lal Khushtar, was published by the Nawal Kishore Press in 1860. One of the most popular versions of Ram Leela performed in Urdu was written by Brij Narain Chakbast. Many elders can still recite its verses from memory.
Versions of the Ramayana in Urdu — in prose and poetry, and as transliterations, transcreations and translations — have been appearing since Urdu gained popularity several centuries ago. According to a comprehensive study of Ram kathan in Urdu by the late Ali Jawad Zaidi, there were over 300 such versions. Slowly the divisions of languages as Urdu being ‘Muslim’ and Hindi being ‘Hindu’ have crept in and the beautiful literature might soon be lost.
But there are still some people who stand as a united defence against divisive sentiment. A Muslim family from Meerut (UP) has been preparing the effigies of the demon kings to be used on the occasion of Dussehra for the past 35 years. The celebrations in Jammu, the only Hindu dominated region in Kashmir, are incomplete without this Muslim family headed by Mohammad Gayasuddin. He has a team of 40 Muslim artisans and every year, they work hard to make the effigies that are to be burnt. Gayasuddin says, “People know that I am a Muslim and they welcome me with open arms as they love my art. The festival of Dussehra is a symbol of communal harmony and brotherhood in the country”.
Muslim artisans are employed in making the effigies in Almora, Uttarakhand, as well. Here, they are also involved inextricably in the Ram Leela. Muslim artists play the Tabla and Harmonium and are involved in the Ram Leela tableaux as make-up artists and stage managers. The Muslim community also participates enthusiastically in all the effigy committees, making Almora’s Dussehra one of the most special and famous celebrations in India.
In Jaipur this year, a 120feet high Ravana effigy has been constructed by a Muslim man, Chand Babu and his family. His family has been making Ravana effigies for 5 generations. The stories are numerous. In Mathura, Jafar Ali’s family has been making effigies for 3 generations. Aamir,an artisanwho works with Jafar Ali says he findsno distinction between Hindus and Muslims,”This work is our religion. My father also used to make Ravana effigy. For the past 40 years, I have been doing this work. Political leaders divide people in the name of religion. For us, Hindus and Muslims are same”.
In Cuttack, Odisha, it is common to see Muslim citizens like Faisal Muhammad elected as the vice-president of Mohammadia Bazar Puja Committee in 1978. Since then, Muhammad has been shouldering the responsibility of a smooth Dussehra. Apart from that, members of the Muslim community are helping the office-bearers of Alisha Bazar, Chandni Chowk and Mangalabag puja committees of Cuttack in the organisation of Dussehra festival.
The Kullu Dussehra of Himachal Pradesh is arguably the most famous one in India. There is no burning of effigies in Kullu’s Dussehra, the main event is the journey of Lord Raghunath’s chariot. My cousin would tell me stories of the huge crowd that would gather to pull the chariot in the rath maidan while drums were played with full fervour. Since 2016, Muslims have officially joined their Hindu counterparts in the pulling of the chariot. For people who come from all over the world to witness Kullu’s Dussehra celebration, this sends a strong message of communal harmony.
This Dussehra, whether you choose to stay at home, or visit the effigy burning ceremonies, or choose to have a Green Dussehra, what is important, is to celebrate the spirit of triumph of good, of friendship, of brotherhood. The ‘Ravana’ facing us today is the divisiveness pervasive in society, be it on the basis of religion, caste, gender, sexuality, beliefs, even the food we eat. It is up to us to find inspiration from the positive stories of harmony and keep a little more room in our hearts for people we feel are different than us, and maybe eventually we realize, we are all the same human race after all.