In 2014, Bollywood’s ‘Dream Girl’ Hema Malini was elected a Bharatiya Janata Party member of parliament from Mathura and Vrindavan. She then visited a home for widows in Vrindavan, where she made an innocuous comment that launched a short-lived but vicious scandal. She said that Bengali widows should remain in Bengal and not come to Vrindavan, where they lived in crowded widow homes, turned to begging and sometimes to prostitution. She did not consider, said a press release from the Naatak production company, that the widows were largely unwanted by their families in Bengal and that Vrindavan, squalid as it was, was the only home some had known for decades.
The uproar that followed involved non-governmental organizations, politicians from the left and right, the BJP and Malini. Attempts were also made to drag India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi into it. Malini had apparently insulted Bengali pride — all sorts of Bengali politicians jumped up to defend “their” widows. A delegation of widows was taken to see Durga Puja in Kolkata, where they met Mamata Banerjee, who had suddenly discovered empathy for her sisters in far-away Vrindavan. Someone organized a dispatch of 1,000 rakhis to Modi. The widows were everyone’s business. Then the news cycle turned over, and the widows were no one’s business, as it was before, said the release.
The play “Vrindavan,” which is being put on by the San Francisco Bay Area-based Naatak, uses this incident as its starting point and constructs a fantastic, imaginary tale around it. A play set in Vrindavan, where Krishna romanced Radha, stole the clothes of maids bathing in the Yamuna and killed the serpent Kaliya, cannot but be a musical. Naatak has arranged original music and dance choreography for the play by collaborating with professional music and dance companies. The story of Vrindavan widows, whose lives are upended by a sudden announcement by a Bollywood star, will play out in stark relief to live music and dance, juxtaposing the colors of Vrindavan, the gyrations of Bollywood songs, and the love of Radha and Krishna with the stark existence of widows dressed in white, added the release.
Naatak has performed continuously for 20 years. Its plays and films have now been seen by more than 50,000, its performers now total 750 over the years, and “Vrindavan” will be its 50th production.
“Vrindavan” will be staged from Sept. 12 to 27 at Cubberley Theater in Palo Alto, Calif. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit: www.naatak.org.