Behind the thick layer of make-up and embellished clothes, 27-year-old Bede Agung Arjawar has portrayed the character of Lord Rama so well that it would be difficult for anyone to guess that he is an Indonesian citizen.
A practising Muslim, Agung has been taking part in the Ramlila since he was four-years-old. He knows every bit of the Indian mythological tale, its characters and the virtues propagated through it.
“I don’t follow Hinduism and more than a god, Rama is an idol for me, his righteousnous and principles have steered my life ever since I was a young boy,” says Agung.
Accompanying him are four more Indonesian artists—two of them are Muslims—who won hearts of people with their flawless performance as characters of Ramayana.
Though they have no religious sentiments attached to the Ramayana, their understanding of it is excellent, so much so that despite being dressed alike with no significant difference, the group was able to successfully convey who is playing what, with just their expressions and eye movements.
While speaking to TOI, Iksan, the convener of the programme from the Indonesian embassy, talked about the significance of Ramayana and the Hindu festival of Diwali in Indonesia. He said it was not just Hindus but also the 87% Muslim population in Indonesia that celebrates the festival with fervour.
“While Hindus are associated with Ramayana spiritually, Muslims perceive it as an art form and celebrate its cultural aspect. Though all the other Hindu festivals are celebrated by only Hindus, Diwali is a festival for both communities. Besides, there is hardly any difference in the way of celebration. Muslims also celebrate it as the festival of lights. They just don’t conduct puja or worship idols,” says Iksan.
Recounting the variation between the Indian Ramayana and its Indonesian version, Iksan explains, “The storyline is similar. There are two dissimilarities—Ravana doesn’t die in ours and we start from Sita Haran (abduction). All the other characters and anecdotes are almost same.”
One significant difference is that in the Indonesian Ramlila, only men participate. Even the roles of women, such as Sita’s, are played by men.
Iputt, another practising Muslim in the group who played Sita, shares his experience.
“It’s the most difficult role in the entire performance because I am supposed to portray myself as a women just with the help of expressions. One thing that is good about our way of performing it is that any actor can perform any role. This time, I was playing Sita but the next time, I might play another role. The same applies to all other artists, we keep exchanging roles,” says Iputt.