Hema Malini's Ballet DURGA
July 19 at 8
Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave.
Three years ago I backpacked through India, and one of my chief pleasures was witnessing the grand scale of devotion the adherents of Hinduism accorded their deities. The temples of the Hindu pantheon were not the quiet, solemn sanctums of the neighboring Muslim mosques, or even the respectful Christian congregations of my childhood, but pulsing, high-volume hubs of human activity. The worship of Shiva, Kali, Ganesh, and thousands of others was fully integrated into the daily routine of the people of the subcontinent. Their deities do not occupy a rarefied space in place or time; rather, the Hindu gods and goddesses are life itself.
This Saturday the Indo-American Association presents a ballet entitled DURGA: Resplendent Glory of the Divine Mother, choreographed by and starring legendary Bollywood actress Hema Malini. Few goddesses command as much respect from Indian Hindus as Durga, a manifestation of Shakti, who embodies femininity, and chief consort of Shiva, the destroyer. In Hindu mythology, many deities are avatars, or forms, of other deities, and Durga is no exception. “The ballet is based on the universal mother who has taken many forms,” explains production manager Prabha Raghavan. “What we are showing is the three times she reincarnates.” Specifically, the choreography follows a narrative from the Devi Mahatmya, a sacred text written around the year 500 that tells the story of the Divine Mother. The ballet’s three movements portray her in the form of Shakti, Parvati, and, ultimately, Durga.
The Durga section of the ballet depicts the Divine Mother in her role as savior of creation, a warrior who vanquishes the demon army that threatens to overrun the earth. Naturally, such a powerful role requires the talents of an equally formidable star. “The most amazing part of the show is that we have Hema Malini as Durga,” says Raghavan.
Malini made her film debut in the ’60s, and later won a Filmfare Best Actress Award for her breakthrough role in Ramesh Sippy’s Seeta aur Geeta, in which she played identical twins with opposing personalities. She’s appeared in around 150 films, earning the nickname “Dream Girl,” and has served as a member of the Indian parliament since 2003. On top of all that, the multi-talented Malini is also a trained dancer and choreographer, skills she’ll display at the Wortham Center this weekend. She’s currently touring the world with a troupe of 25 male and female performers to perform Durga.
“The dancing is very classical,” Raghavan says. “The first half is Kuchipudi, and then it goes into Odissi and Bharatanatyam.” (Classical Indian dance refers to several styles based on sacred temple dance. Each style developed in a different Indian state; Bharatanatyam, one of the most well-known forms, comes from Tamil Nadu.) And like the best festivals honoring the Divine Mother, the ballet is set to be a lavish affair, with lyrics and music by the great Bollywood composer Ravindra Jain, and costumes and sets that evoke ancient India.
An epic battle between good and evil in which Durga saves mankind from demonic forces might seem like a lot to a digest for newcomers to Hindu mythology, but Raghavan is confident that the ballet will resonate with audiences on different levels, including the younger generation of Indian Americans. “This production is about showing how strong our [culture] is,” she says. “It’s one of the oldest civilizations in the world, but our young people do not know the traditions.”