Rediff Logo HOME | NEWS | SPECIALS Stump Vision - Rediff World Cup 99 - Harsha Bhogle

Palathody Abdul Rasheed,
ostracised for learning a 'Hindu' dance form, believes "Kathakali doesn't have religion. It isn't Hindu or Muslim or Christian."

Twenty-two years old, brother to six younger sisters, the mainstay of a large Muslim family, Rasheed's voice is gentle and inoffensive. His dark, stubbled face holds the same half-apologetic, half-shy smile that was there when he started speaking.

E-Mail this report to a friend "It's true, Kathakali mostly has stories about Hindu gods," he continues, "That is because the exponents were all Hindus. If someone tabulates a story from the Quran (into Kathakali), that too can be performed."

Before we progress, Rasheed is the latest known victim of Islamic fundamentalism in Kerala. He lives in Thekkan Kuttoor, a small village in Malappuram district, where 66 per cent population is Muslim. Rasheed, who has been learning Kathakali -- allegedly an anti-Islamic, Hindu dance form -- for the past four years is now facing society's wrath.

His father's teashop was closed down after a section of villagers, mainly the youth, boycotted it. His mother and sisters were accused of prostitution. Today there are not many in Thekkan Kuttoor who would care to be seen with his family.

"Kathakali doesn't belong to Hindus. Art isn't anyone's monopoly. It is wrong to say so. My interest in it is not a move to become a Hindu. I felt like learning Kathakali, so I learnt it. Is there anything wrong with that?"

No sane person will find fault with Rasheed's logic. But then, no society has all its elements sane. Which is why Rasheed is today, to some, an outcast. Sadly, this section is made up of not yesterday's greying, supposedly orthodox generation but today's vibrant, supposedly progressive one. To them, this lanky six-footer is an infidel. Out to sully Islam. Out to propagate Hinduism.

"Today you will see Mohiniyattam (considered a traditional Hindu dance form) is being done with Christian stories," Rasheed says. "Kathakali too can be presented like that -- with non-Hindu themes. If I feel like writing one with an Islamic theme, I should be able to do it."

Last month Rediff On The NeT carried a story about Rasheed's plight. We received an email the same day from Alap R Subramanian, a gentleman based in Arizona, United States. Subramanian conveyed that he would provide a monthly stipend if Rasheed could convince him about his (Rasheed's) seriousness about the art.

Rasheed has that email in his hands as he sits talking. "Don't think I am not grateful for the offer," he begins, "But this won't really help me. If I go to study Kathakali full-time, what will become of my family?

"I have six sisters. They have to be married off. After our teashop closed, my father sells vegetables. He doesn't make much. We survive because I earn a little from my job and my Bharata Natayam classes."

When his father's business started collapsing, Rasheed was forced to return from the Gandhi Seva Sadanam, Pathirappalla, where he had enrolled for a six-year Kathakali diploma. He took up a job selling books in the nearby Tirur town. This earns him Rs 1,000 a month. Another Rs 600 come from the dance classes he teaches.

His Kathakali classes, however, still continue. He leaves for Sadanam every Saturday evening after work, reaching by night. Monday morning, he catches an early bus to Tirur.

"I get the entire Sunday for learning," he says, "But that is not enough. Kathakali is not like Bharata Natayam. It needs much more dedication and practice."

Rasheed is now in his fourth year. He has missed many classes and, by own admission, is only as good as a third year student. The one day he gets every week can in no way keep him abreast his colleagues. For them, classes begin at around 0400 hours and may go on till 2000 hours. But Rasheed feels he has the dedication and talent to complete the course in six years.

Rasheed's troubles started in 1997, completely unconnected with Kathakali. There was a small hotel where he lived, with its window facing the road you took to reach his house.

"Some small children knocked on it and ran. When a worker opened the window, my sisters were passing by. He abused them. When my mother went to ask about it, he abused her too," Rasheed tells us.

After much persuasion he has met us at a safe place in Tirur, away from home. The last thing he wants is his village knowing that the press is around.

"That night the owner and three men barged into my house. I tried to stop them. It developed into fisticuffs. Luckily, our neighbours helped to eject them," he continues.

The assailants' response was unexpected. They filed a complaint with the police that Rasheed's family was running a brothel. The case, however, didn't reach the court. Local mediators intervened before that.

"Ibrahim Kutty (the hotel owner) didn't have any valid reason for his attack," Rasheed says, "So the reason he gave was that I was going against the religion learning Kathakali."

The mediators got the case withdrawn. But with that, the young generation started boycotting the family. Even Rasheed's youngest sisters had to bear the consequences. At the madrassa (Islamic religious school) they attended, Rasheed says, the teachers used to throw his 'sin' at their faces.

"Ha, ooninganne kathakaleem padichchu nadakkunnathukonda ningal inganae (It is because he goes around studying Kathakali that you are like this)," was the regular scolding.

Meanwhile, Rasheed's family business was on the downslide. The youth had completely stopped their patronage. As they were the ones who gave good business, Rasheed's father had no option but close shop. By then, Rasheed had taken up a job in Tirur.

From behind the doorway of her cramped house, half-hidden in the shadows, Rasheed's umma (mother) views her guests. Her daughters are orthodox enough to keep in the shadows. They observe without being observed.

"Oan nannayi varanam. Oante thazhe aaru penkuttikalaane (He should succeed. He does have six girls under him, you know)," she says.

Rasheed's father is also around. The media publicity has made him wary; he is eager to say there has been no social ostracisation. His shop, he claims, was closed not because of any boycott -- business "was generally bad."

"I don't have any regrets about letting him learn Kathakali," he responds, "But he should bring us something...?"

Rasheed's interest in Kathakali started in school. Mainly owing to a teacher who was a Kathakali artist. After the 10th standard, he applied for the diploma at the famed Kalamandalam. But he wasn't admitted. Whereupon he applied at the Sadanam. The students and teachers there didn't have any problem accepting a Muslim. But once he started going out with the troupe, Rasheed began using a stage name: Remayan. Yes, the idea was to cover the fact that he was a Muslim.

"Earlier, a Muslim student had joined the Kalamandalam. The media publicised it so much that he had to leave the first year itself. I didn't want the same happening to me," he explains, "Besides, I was scared that our troupe would miss out on programmes if people knew I was a Muslim."

The change of name brought Rasheed solid trouble. Once it came to know of Rasheed's plight, the media latched on to it. "They wrote that Hindu extremists forced me to change my name, that I was being converted!" Rasheed says.

He has more complaints about the media: "Only some people boycotted us. When the media started using the phrase 'social ostracisation' everyone felt bad... It isn't good to blame an entire community for what some did." The real ostracisation, he adds, started after the reports came.

But what precisely does the community see wrong in Kathakali? Rasheed isn't sure. "If they had approached me directly, I could have got them to explain. But if they only whisper behind my back, what can I ask them?"

Rasheed is not an orthodox, namaaz-offering Muslim. But he is a believer. "I believe in god. Since I was born a Muslim, brought up a Muslim, I stay in the religion. Though I don't adhere to Islamic practices very strictly, I do practice it whenever I feel like it."

Despite the reverses, he expects Kathakali to provide him a livelihood. At times when the strain of responsibilities weigh him down, he does wish with all his heart that he was born a rich kid. But that passes. Even the hurt his uppa (father) inflicts occasionally when he blames him for their misfortunes passes. That is because his father is upset, Rasheed knows.

"When I took up Kathakali I dreamt of becoming a big, very big artist. That is my dream still," he says, "I want to finish my studies somehow. Whatever I have to go through for it, whatever I have to suffer, I will do it."

Rasheed needs all the good wishes and help we can offer.

The jihad within
Back to the series home.

Wednesday, April 28, 1999
Tasni Banu, abandoned by neighbours and family for marrying outside the nikah ceremony, is still angry. "I haven't abused Islam. It's they who did that."

Thursday, April 29, 1999
V P Suhara is feminist and crusader for the rights of Muslim women. Completely bereft of ideology and dogma, she only has personal conviction. "Can you show me where the Quran allows a man to divorce his wife at will?" she demands.

Friday, April 30, 1999
E M Abdul Rahman is the new chairman of the National Development Front. The police will tell you that the Front is the most dreaded Islamic extremist organisation in Kerala. But Rahman defends his organisation. "We are not fundamentalists. We are a secular party."

Tell us what you think of this feature