Ballet Retells India’s Ancient Tales

It’s an endearing saga that’s lasted for decades and will endure for many more: retelling stories of mythological characters like Ram, Krishna, Kali and Durga through the performing arts to bridge the gap between myth and reality.
“You will be surprised how many older people only know the widespread, well-known story of the Ramayana. Ram was one of four brothers, he broke the bow, he was banished to the forest by Kaikeyi, he killed Ravan, and he came back,” said Shobha Deepak Singh, director of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK). Its latest annual offering “Festival of Ballets” has been running since May 9.
“They don’t know the subject at all. Our duty is to inform people as to what lies below the subject,” she continues. “Dance is a vibrant medium to connect with the older and younger generations.” Episodes like Sita undergoing a fire ordeal don’t even find a mention in Tulsidas’ Ramayana, she adds.
Hence the expertise of the 70-year-old Singh lies in bridging this gap between ignorance and what is actually written in the works. Relying heavily on meticulous, self-driven research before the start of a new production is the secret recipe of these celebrated productions that are an annual affair in the national capital.
Be it the popular story of good versus evil in a Ram ballet or the many shades of the life of Krishna, these ever-popular annual festivals (along with ballet and music editions) are produced successfully by the SBKK year after year. “Festival of Ballets” consists of four productions: “Meera” chronicles the life of the Krishna devotee, “Durga” celebrates the power of women, “Karna” is about the life of a character in the Mahabharata, and “Kumar Sambhava” is the story of the demon Tarak.

“We chronicle their lives and use mythology to extend the meaning of these episodes; a lot of research goes into this. We also have to keep in mind that mythology offers a space that comes with certain boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed,” said the Padma Shri recipient, who has more than 30 productions to her name over the past four decades. “I read analyses of stories and ask myself many questions related to the characters that push me to explore further. Why did Sita keep running after the golden deer? I thought it may reflect a desire to seek something materialistic.”
Singh had an inclination for the performing arts at an early age, becoming associated with the SBKK in 1968. She is a self-trained photographer, choreographer, and costume and ornament designer who learned Kathak from the masters like Shambhu Maharaj and Birju Maharaj, as well as music from Biswajeet Roy Chowdhary and Amjad Ali Khan. Singh, who conceptualises and directs the contemporary, mythological dance ballets herself, admits that the most challenging part of her job is to translate text into choreography.
“Choreography is the most challenging aspect of such productions. In ‘Kumar Sambhava’, I had to translate a scene where Shiva’s semen was kept in six matkis (pots). I had to think a lot in order to choreograph this bit,” said Singh, who has also trained under theatre doyen Ebrahim Alkazi. “But in the end, this is what feels satisfactory – giving visual vocabulary to a challenging scene.”    

– Shilpa Raina for IANS