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Where stars go to die

Jyoti Dogra in ‘Black Hole’.

Jyoti Dogra in ‘Black Hole’.  

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After the wildly successful ‘Notes On Chai’, Jyoti Dogra takes on black holes and existential angst in her latest trademark solo performance

A terminally ill woman living out the last days of her life has decided not to talk about tiresome issues of bodily survival — medicines, doctors, aches and pains. Talk to me about black holes, she tells her daughter, about their minuscule points of singularity that hold giant dead stars, and where everything will eventually return when the universe ends.

Can science help us deal with existential angst? Can astrophysics offer us a path to understanding mortality? Can principles that define time and space teach us how to negotiate a relationship?

Black Hole, actor Jyoti Dogra’s brave new work, looks at the fascinating connect between our lives, earthly and otherwise, and the final frontier where stars go to die. A fascinating mix of astrophysics and our everyday life, the play made its debut at Delhi’s Oddbird Theatre last December. More interestingly, it is now playing out often to an unusual audience: cosmologists and astrophysicists across the country who are curious to know how their world of dry facts finds resonance in human emotions.

On February 18, Black Hole will be staged at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences during a three-day global cosmology conference. Then it travels to the physics department of Guwahati University. Its first unusual audience after the debut at Oddbird was the department of astrophysics at University of Delhi, and that set off a buzz in the world of science.

90 and counting

Black Hole is Dogra’s fourth solo devised play, and comes on the heels of her wildly popular work, Notes On Chai. There aren’t many theatre enthusiasts who are likely to have missed Notes, which has been staged nearly 90 times so far. There are fans who have watched the play multiple times and await its reappearance in the city.

Like Notes, Black Hole is a curious mix of the everyday and the abstract, real and surreal, cerebral and emotional. The minimal storyline is of a woman with a deep interest in the idea of black holes grappling with the impending death of her terminally sick mother.

Back to the beginning

For the rest, the play weaves in and out of remarkable ideas: helium and the fragile hope of immortality, for instance. “Helium particles are the only part of us that leave this planet and move to outer space, all other atoms and subatomic particles are absorbed by the earth,” says Dogra. There will then be tiny bits of us travelling through space when we die, the mother says. How far will her own helium particles travel? And if they can reach the closest black hole, would they eventually also enter the singularity, returning a part of her to the beginning?

“I have always been interested in and moved by astrophysics. I asked myself if the black hole can represent our life, ideas of loss, absence, death, void?” says Dogra. “The idea pushed me towards some personal experiences, some of them excruciatingly painful. The black hole is all-encompassing but it is all in nothing.”

Proximity with death, she says, brings many of these ideas close to how the cosmos works. “A dying person whose pain you know but cannot share, when things close down and you cannot penetrate the shell... Where is that person going?”

The conventional search for answers to these questions takes us to religion and spiritualism. But could the path lie through astrophysics? “You are after all your universe,” she points out.

Unrelated worlds

Once she found the connection between the two seemingly unrelated worlds, Dogra says she was moved and surprised by how forged they were. She ensured that the science was correct, the last thing you want with a work like this is to have someone point out that an equation is out of place or a link non-existent. But was the context correct? Would the play survive scientific scrutiny?

At the astrophysics department of Delhi University, the answer was a resounding yes. There were two black hole specialists, two scientists from CERN at the performance, which was followed by a two-hour Q&A session. The response, she says, came as a huge relief at the end of the nerve-racking no-frills performance in a tiny hall next to the department head’s office — no lights, no stage, just a white sheet.

“They have never looked at science like this, in terms of human emotions. Science has one place in the world, and life another. But their response was astounding — they opened up to talk about poetry and philosophy,” she recalls.

Dogra’s works, which make very inventive use of the human voice and movement practices like yoga, are always a fascinating plumb into the recesses of the mind. But she is never, not even when she is delineating a laughable cliché, lacking in compassion. Every character, even the most loathsome, has a story to tell. Every banal action, pointless babble is wired to something deeper as we try to make sense of our days.

In Notes, for instance, the so-called behenji we sneer at, the government clerk with eyes glazed over, the lech with hands on his crotch: everyone gets a shot at relevance. Even at its funniest, the play is deeply melancholic.

“The reason why Notes worked was because people see their own masks slipping, they recognise themselves, like a ‘Caught you!’ There is a lot that is said but there is a lot that is there in the unsaid as well where viewers locate themselves,” she says.

The author writes on and lives for music, dance, theatre, and literature.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 11:27:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/where-stars-go-to-die/article26151554.ece

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