When young Himanshu Bajpai took to the dais at Lucknow's majestic Imambada Sibtainabad last Sunday, the mixed crowd of Hindus and Muslims in one voice chorused, 'Wah!'

The occasion was to mark Chehlum, the 40th and last day of mourning for the martyrdom in Karbala of Imam Husain, a grandson of Prophet Muhammad and the encore was for Himanshu, a local dastango or storyteller from the upper cast Hindu Brahmin community.

Himanshu's narration of the incident of Karbala is adapted from Ismat Chughtai's famous Urdu novel A Drop of Blood and the mesmerising marsiya or elegy in Urdu of Mir Anis, the poetic merits of which, according to critics are not matched by any other poet.

Himanshu continues to study Mir Anis, the 19th century poet of Lucknow out of a deep love and respect for the culture and way of life of fellow citizens here. This interest in the other, makes him feel closer to human beings living in the same city. He has spent years learning the Urdu language that derives much strength from the marsiya of Mir Anis and takes lessons in dastangoi, the special art of story telling.

Himanshu enjoys doing all this because he believes in the plurality of life, of living and letting live and experiencing others thrive. He is hurt when people in power today mock secularism that encourages diversity, and respect for the belief of all human beings. It is sick in his view to taunt those who believe in respecting all human beings, as sickularists. To hear the prime minister go abroad, gift a copy of the Bhagwad Gita to the head of another state and say that secularists in India will now create a storm over his gesture, bothers him. Secularism is precious to Himanshu as its practice helps to break down walls that segregate human being belonging to different religious and cultural backgrounds and helps to overlook barriers of class and caste.

“Secularism is our way of life and Lucknow is the heart beat of this way of life,” said Himanshu who is a self confessed non believer in any one religion. However he takes to the stage in a Imambada, a congregation hall for shia Muslims to commemorate the martyrdom of Husain as he sees it as yet another opportunity to explore a different view of life through drama, poetry and music. He is curious to find out how the battle of Karbala that took place in a city in present day Iraq nearly 1,400 years ago is kept alive by the faithful to this day and has throughout history inspired artistes, both Hindu and Muslim.

Born in 1803, Mir Anis, Urdu's greatest poet had lived through the very bloody fight by Indians against the British in 1857 followed by a takeover of Lucknow by the colonial powers. This incident was a personal tragedy for Mir Anis and being a shia Muslim so was the battle of Karbala. Both events must have surely mingled in his mind to stir his sensibility in such a way that he was able to relive the tragedy of Karbala in Lucknow and to capture it so poetically in his marsiya. The marsiya thrived in Lucknow because the rulers in the 18th century and till half of the 19th century were shia Muslims of Persian origin who built numerous Imambadas that are different to a mosque. The Imambada is used as a meeting place to mourn the martyrs of the battle of Karbala as well as to pray.

The grand Imambada Sibtainabad, now restored was built by Wajid Ali Shah in 1847 and is also a maqbara, or memorial for his father Amjad Ali Shah whose tomb is on the same premises along with other members of the royal family. Lucknow has a glorious tradition of rising above quarrelsome definitions of religion to address humanity in general and to encourage people to appreciate, and not to mock each other.In the same spirit Raja Tikait Rai, an influential minister in the court of 18th century Lucknow built a Imambada and a tank so that the people of the city should not suffer thirst like Imam Husain who was starved of water and food at Karbala.

Later Channu Lal Lakhnavi 'Dilgeer' and Natthu Lal, all important Hindu courtiers of Lucknow built their own Imambada. Channu Lal had composed marsiya and a memorial to him is a sacred place in the city. Maharaja Mewa Ram and the wealthy merchant Nandu Ji Kayastha also built similar places for congregations that were destroyed by the British after the recapture of Lucknow in 1858 to teach a lesson to those who under the leadership of Begum Hazrat Mahal had dared to challenge the rule of the East India Company. This Begum, it may be recalled was a wife of Wajid Ali Shah, last monarch of Lucknow, a Krishna devotee who celebrated Holi, the colourful Hindu festival of Spring on the banks of the River Gomti with all the citizens of the city.

It is a tragedy that the British colonised the land and also the mind of the population that over time has come to believe that Hindus and Muslims are two different kind of human beings. This misunderstanding between Indians was reinforced through a colonial interpretation of history, culture and traditions. According to political scientists the colonial practice of creating different identities in a society was dangerous as the division has been now internalised by those colonised. Separate electorates polarised people into hostile groups and they forgot everything that they had in common. The Hindu Mahasabha was meant to accommodate Hindus and the Muslim League the Muslims, a divisive idea that has led to many a tragedy, the greatest being Partition.

But before the annexation of Lucknow by the British, it was not unusual for a Muslim to build a temple. Janab-e-Alia, wife of the third monarch of Avadh and a Hanuman devotee built a temple in the city in Aliganj two centuries before the word secularism made its way into the 42nd Amendment of the Indian Constitution in 1976 that continues to be visited today by devotees beyond religious, caste and gender differences.