Neither sex nor religion stop him from pursuing his dream.
Twelve years ago in the small town of Manimajra near Chandigarh, as the ten-headed Ravan went into flames, a fire burned in a young boy’s heart. Seven-year-old Miraz Malik was watching Ramlila for the first time. Hooked not just to the story, but also the characters and visuals they created on stage, Miraz hoped to be involved in the drama someday. A few years later his dreams came true and the 19-year-old Muslim teenager got the role of Sita.
His participation in Ramlila has been a defining part of his life. Currently pursuing a Bachelors in Technology from Chandigarh, this fair and slightly lean lad started off by playing the supporting role of Angad. But his director, a person Miraz holds in high regard, recognized his raw acting talent and asked him to switch to the role of Sita. “I don’t know what the director saw in me and why he felt I should play the role of a woman, but I was young then and I didn’t mind. I was happy to play the lead role.” People from different professions and backgrounds practice months in advance to perform the mythological epic of Ramayana which climaxes with the burning of Ravana’s effigy on the festival of Dussehra.
Bold and beautiful on stage
But the peculiar part about this festival remains that most roles, even those of women, are played by men. Though times are slowly changing, this practice continues, perhaps owing to the patriarchal mindsets that do not like to see women on stage.
When not playing Sita, Miraz likes to work out in the gym
“Our practice goes on late into the night. I think this is why women are hesitant to participate,” Miraz reasons, admitting that he has never given this bias much thought. He tells me that he does as he is told. “I am a Muslim. But so what? I believe the spirit of all religions is essentially the same.”
Miraz isn’t the only one. For centuries, Muslims have not just been playing important roles in Ramleela, they’ve also been closely associated with its production. Right from art direction to setting up stage and creating effigies, their contribution to Ramleela are not just crucial, but also acceptable. Though over the last few years, extremist Hindutva groups have tried to stop this. Allegedly Nawazuddeen Sidiqqui had to pull out of Ramlila after Shiv Sena members protested. Nevertheless, in several places across the rural and urban spectrum, Ramlila continues to serve as a uniting ground for both religions.
During Ramlila, they practice their religion but abstain from non-veg and garlic. Image source: hindustantimes.com
Miraz has unconditional support from his family. He tells me that it was his father, an Ayurvedic doctor, who had taken him to see Ramlila for the first time and encouraged him to join the Azad Dramatics Club that put up Ramlila productions in town. “I am a celebrated actor in the community today, because of my father.
Most are men playing the role of women
Defying gender roles, adapting to a feminine character and dealing with the usual mockery that accompanies it, is something that Miraz tackles every day. But he’s lucky. “I remember the first time I was assigned to play the role of Sita, I was teased by my classmates. But after my performance, they were rather impressed.” Playing Sita has also got him a fair share of female attention.
What Miraz struggles with most after five years of playing Sita is draping a saree and putting makeup, a ritual that takes hours. But once he’s ready, it's a complete transformation. He is no longer a teenage boy but a beautiful queen, a goddess to his audience. “It’s a little embarrassing and funny when people come and touch my feet after a play. It’s weird and empowering at the same time.” Ask him what he thinks about the story of Ramayana and Miraz says he believes in it completely. “If I didn't, I don't think I could be so convincing on stage.”
Though he wants to continue being associated with Ramlila, he understands his body is changing and soon he may have to discontinue playing Sita. But not this year. The 19-year-old has his dialogues on the tip of his tongue and is all set to take the stage. He isn’t the least bit nervous. "Let the show begin!"
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By Devyani Nighoskar
Photo credit: Miraz Malik