One man, epitomising the secularism of India without even knowing it leads a quiet life in the lake city of Nainital nestled in the mountains. Sayeeb Ahmed is a Muslim who practices astrology as his vocation. He is the least visible but the most discussed personality in the town when the Ramlila is performed in the Tallital area every year.

His story assumes special significance given the times when he took to being a part of this folk art. For the last 29 years, he has been the main make up artist of the local Ramleela troupe. He is the one who dresses every character of the Ramayana epic every night within three to four minutes.

Just when the country was witnessing the turmoil over the Ram Janambhoomi - Babri Masjid issue, Sayeeb had taken to being a part of the annual performance of the epic.

“I took to being involved with the staging of the Ramayana as I wanted to do something unique. The characters of Ramayana exist in our daily lives and convey a lot in social terms. We can learn a lot from them and then it is for us to decide whether we can become someone like Rama, Lakshmana or Vibhishana,” he told this reporter .

For Sayeeb, Ramlila is not just theatre. It has a very deep meaning and message for everyone. Interestingly, the form of astrology that he practices to earn his living is the one sought by Hindus.

“My family has never objected to my getting deeply involved in Ramleela but have always encouraged me. Since 80 per cent of the population in this country is Hindu, I must do something that helps me becoming one with them in a brotherly manner,” he said.

Remembering the dark days of the late 1980s and early 1990s when the call for demolition of Babri Masjid by Hindu right wing was getting shriller by the day, Sayeeb recalled, “Even Ramlila used to be staged under police protection.”

He pointed that the whole issue as politically motivated with the majority of the people not in favour of the demolition of the mosque.

Talking about the recent set of events including the lynching of a Muslim man in a village in Dadri near Delhi recently on the assumption of his consuming beef Sayeeb told this reporter, “The same forces are at work once again to achieve their political goals. The people need to see through such attempts and not get divided on communal lines. We are all interdependent in every sphere of life.”

This year too, he has been at the backstage of the Ramlila performance at the Tallital bus stand.

“My concern is that the performance is perfect and that we draw more crowds to watch this performance. We need to preserve this ancient art form,” he said.

The peculiarity of Ramlila performances across the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand is that till date it is the male artists who enact the parts of the female characters in the epic. Another unique aspect is that the dialogues are delivered in verse based on classical ragas.

“Ramlila has so much to teach everyone in terms of values, ethics and a way of life. People must come and see this staging once every year,” he has been telling this reporter during numerous interactions.