Shiburam Mohanta has to wait for almost 5 hours to stretch his legs. Sitting still in a chair while the make-up man turns him into the goddess Durga for a rehearsal, the 27-year-old uses the time to memorize his Mayurbhanj chhau dance moves for his “toughest" role yet—Mayurbhanj chhau is the Odiya sub-branch of the tribal martial dance chhau. “I have to be feisty and aggressive but measure my steps and gait like a woman," says Mohanta, who leads female dancers in a ballet that narrates the mythological tale of the mighty Durga combating demonic forces.

Titled Durga, this ballet will be performed in Delhi on 6 May as part of the Summer Ballet Festival.

Before signing up for the ballet, Mohanta used to view Durga the way most people do, “a far-gone religious, mythological being, far away from the times we live in. Now I know she’s a reality. She’s in every woman who has to fight the atrocities heaped on her in every sphere of life. She’s in front of us every day," he says.

That was the idea behind this edition of the Summer Ballet Festival, says Shobha Deepak Singh, the event’s director. “I wanted to break stereotypes, bend rules and reinterpet age-old stories to remind people that our past is not redundant or outdated; there are many lessons that can be learnt from these tales," says Singh, who’s the director and vice-chairperson of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Delhi’s premier performing arts institute, which has been organizing this annual festival since 1995. Durga, for instance, she says, “tells us that each demon (mahishasur) that lurks in every corner is slayed by strong, powerful women, women who are independent and self-sufficient."

Molina Singh will play Meera.
Molina Singh will play Meera.

Besides Durga, three dance-dramas will be staged at the festival: Meera, Karna and Khajuraho.

Kathak dancer Molina Singh, who will present Meera today, reiterates that the festival aims to steer clear of labels. “Meera has long been seen as the abla naari (someone who doesn’t or can’t express her opinions or views), which is so not the case. She was, in fact, the first feminist who fought the feudal system sweetly, through her music and poetry. Her glory lies in her ability to articulate through her poetry the turbulence that transpired in her life. She was free to make her own choices, her dancing and singing symbolized female abandon. Even in her sweetness, she was strong and a rebel. And that’s what we need to learn," says Molina Singh, who will dance to bhajans in Mewari, the language that Meera wrote poetry in.

The tale of Karna from the Mahabharat will be brought alive by Swapan Majumdar on 11 May. “Karna’s life is a study of relations between man and his destiny. It talks about why some people are not given their rightful place in society," explains Deepak Singh. He too will perform in the Mayurbhanj chhau style. “Chhau is the purest language of dance. It doesn’t have any stylization. You don’t need a mudra to make the audience understand what you want to say. Your dance speaks for itself," says Deepak Singh.

This is also the case with Khajuraho, which will be presented on the last day of the festival, 12 May, by Raj Kumar Sharma and students of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Deepak Singh says, “This Mayurbhanj chhau dance-drama, choreographed by the late K.C. Naik, uses the poses of Khajuraho to show how romantic chhau can be. Isn’t that an unlikely thought?"

The Summer Ballet Festival will be held on 5-6 May/11-12 May, 7pm, at the Kamani Auditorium, Copernicus Marg. For details, visit here