Notes from a theatremaker’s journey


An international tour, as a last bastion of performance, is now no longer completely out of the purview for Indian plays, however modest their beginnings. International co-productions aside, even homegrown Indian theatre, including several plays from Mumbai, have been showcased abroad in the recent past. Sometimes a cultural commemoration eases the way to a sporadic international showing, with consular support specially earmarked for certain kinds of bilateral cultural exchange. Last year’s UK-India Year of Culture took experimental productions like Sharanya Ramprakash’s Akshayambara and Akash Khurana’s A Friend’s Story to London. Of course, plays with ‘big names’ (read, Bollywood types) in the cast have long found takers in the Indian diaspora. For others, like Atul Kumar’s Piya Behrupiya, an exotic rendering of Shakespeare proved to be the right ticket to world destinations galore. Teamwork Arts, an organisation that has acquired the reputation of being a gatekeeper to the West, recently facilitated a month-long run of Yuki Elias’ Elephant in the Room at the Edinburgh Fringe. In artistically curated international festivals, there is still little likelihood of Indian plays making the cut, so the inclusion of the latest works by Sankar Venkateswaran and Mallika Taneja at the last edition of the Zurich Theatre Spektakel was path-breaking. Taneja, specially, launched off from the award-winning outing of Thoda Dhyaan Se at the Spektakel’s 2015 edition, to fashion an extended international run for the play, for which she put in much of the spadework herself.

Last year, Mumbai-based performer Jyoti Dogra was also able to turn around a run of several shows of Notes on Chai in Europe. Traveling solo, without her usual team, meant that she was a veritable production company in a suitcase. An invitation from the London-based Southbank Centre’s Alchemy, a multi-arts annual celebration of South Asian culture, took care of the return ticket, which is usually the most cost-prohibitive aspect of international travel for cash-strapped artistes. Three shows of Notes on Chai were scheduled there in May last year. Acting in good faith and through the good offices of Google, Dogra was able to organise several other shows, mostly with theatre companies with attached venues whose programming seemed to be in line with what her play had to offer. However, an exclusivity clause in her contract with Alchemy meant that she had to forgo all the fixtures in London. It was a testament to the uncertainties that wrack a theatremaker’s already precarious journey.

One showing that Dogra did insist on honouring was a non-ticketed performance at the community hall of the Southall Black Sisters, a historically significant women’s group. Although feminine repression is one of the important themes in her play, Dogra laces those portions with a humour that almost satirises her protagonists (the piece sees her flit in and out of multiple personas). At Southall, she was struck by the solemnity, even pathos, displayed by the audience, unlike in India, where the sequences frequently elicit laughter from urban audiences, privileged enough to be at a distinct remove from the characters the play lampoons. “A woman from Pakistan cried throughout the play. People were emotionally overwhelmed. I wondered if I was laughing at things that were part of a really hurtful reality for them,” said Dogra. At the post-show luncheon, she was ‘held’ by many in the audience, a silent affirmation for someone they considered to be a kindred spirit.

Post Alchemy, Dogra performed the piece at the Islington Mills in Manchester, and at Odin Teatret in Denmark, affiliated with one of the foremost European theatre directors, Eugenio Barba. But it was in Switzerland that she experienced the push and pull of an arts community eager to support her work. Notes on Chai had initially been developed during a 2013 research residency supported by Pro Helvetia New Delhi, the Swiss Confederation’s arts and culture wing in India. This time too, they helped organise performances in Zürich, Thalwil and Olten. These showings resulted in others, and invitations to perform poured in from all quarters, several of which had to be declined because of scheduling issues. “Someone who is devising her own work is not an oddity there at all,” said Dogra. The fact that her work was created sans a dramaturg or a scenographer, or any other kind of institutional trappings, made it seem like a novelty. “It was something that they valued because of how different my process was from their own work culture,” she said. Her audiences did not understand English across the board, which resulted in very different kind of receptions. “In India, the audience becomes a singular body. They respond as one entity, albeit without everybody deciding on it beforehand,” said Dogra. In Switzerland, even in the sheer diversity of reactions, there was a sense of community (in Olten, everyone brought in food for the post-show interactions) unlike the ‘pack behaviour’ that is more a kind of psychological phenomena than anything else. Outside Switzerland, she performed at the Berlin art studio, Under The Mango Tree, and the Grotowski Centre in Wrocław, Poland.

At Barba’s space, Dogra interacted with artistes in residence who were creating their own work. “Being there it felt like it wasn’t about the play, it was more about my journey as a theatremaker.” Their focus was her practice, and where she was headed with her work, rather than what she had already accomplished. This was revelatory, almost refreshingly so, for her. The Wrocław outing was huge for someone who had always considered her work to be aligned with Grotowskian ideals. She couldn’t enrol in an intensive physical theatre workshop because of back issues, but the work sessions there were invigorating. “I have never worked like that, or felt like that before,” she shared. During her three-month tour of Europe, Dogra stayed with strangers, friends, organisers, and did not need to pay for food and accommodation for even a single day. “Interacting with an extended arts community that I did not even know I was part of was the most heartening aspect of the trip,” she said.

Notes on Chai will be performed at Prithvi Theatre today at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. and January 18 at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m; more details at bookmyshow

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 8:22:14 PM |

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