Film, television and theatre actor, Jyoti Dogra created The Doorway , an exploration of real and imagined stories in the tradition of Grotowski's Theatre Laboratory. Jyoti's performance was a response to current theatre practice which, she says, is “either a coldly intellectual activity, at one extreme, or else a spectacle, at the other.” By using gestures, mumblings, sounds, and body images, she sought “to cultivate more intuitive acts of understanding [in theatre].”
The Doorway premiered in May at Gallerie Beyond in Mumbai. She will perform at Adishakti, Pondicherry, and Ninasam, Heggodu in the coming months.
Opening doors to freedom
Devina Dutt is awed by an alternative experience in the performing arts space that is a rare event across the country.
Right from the start it was clear that theatreperson and actress Jyoti Dogra was going to extend a rare freedom to her viewers in a recent performance of The Doorway. The mixed bag of unpredictable material combined elements of dance, mime, theatre, stillness and voice experiments and just did not allow the group gathered there any foreknowledge of the artist's design and blueprint for the evening. The result was a truly exploratory piece with the performer taking as many risks as those gathered in the room. In the process, Dogra attempted to push the doorway for her audience, using the incomplete narrative of her work to spark off a glimpse of the deeply subjective and personal within.
The truly alternative, experimental experience is a rare event in the performing arts space across the country. Too often, such self labelled performances end up being either self consciously trite and belaboured or simply work too hard at being novel. Besides, the usual criticisms of gimmickry levelled against devised theatre productions can quite easily be made against all experimental work.
That's why this new and unusual performance presented on the bare floor of Gallerie Beyond, situated in a crumbling old building with high ceilings from another age, in Mumbai's Kala Ghoda district, proved to be a gratifying experience. At the end of the 75-minute performance, Dogra had managed to get the audience absorbed and intrigued in a show which was difficult to define in the strict categories and compartments of accepted forms and structure.
The performance revolved around a single prop, a double barred doorway made of hollow iron pipes framing the entry point into the experience. Here, the performer sometimes hung herself, caving her body into and against the frame contorting her body or just swinging like a child only to freeze into stillness punctured soon enough by a sharp jerky movement and sound effect.
The voice varied from the guttural to the squeaky and comprised mainly semi legible talk stringing out stray lines of text. Dogra wore a grunge hobo slightly trashy look; three quarter black tights a ripped teeshirt fully torn at the back to look like a sari blouse showing an expanse of skin. The sheer physicality of the experience was matched by the emotional twists and turns with odd bits of calm in between.
As a practitioner, Dogra says she has been interested in work which “pushes you into breaking out of the familiarities that you inevitably acquire over a period of time with ideas about performance, or with your own abilities as a performer.”
At the same time she wants to break the power equation of the performer, the space and the audience. “I am very interested in the possibility of work that seems to ‘include' the spectator, so that he no longer stands at a distance,” she says.
The Doorway was created and performed with a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) in Bangalore, and was the first showing of a piece which will travel every other month to art galleries, theatre institutions and other alternate spaces across the country, changing and evolving with every show over a year. This schedule will include smaller cities like Indore and Bhopal as well. Among alternate spaces the show will travel to the Adishakti theatre in Pondicherry and also to Ninasan at Heggodu in rural Karnataka. “I don't believe that experimental work can only be appreciated in cool urban centres,” says Dogra firmly.
Her grant is part of the IFA's Extending Arts Practice (EAP) which is founded on a belief that alternative, experimental, risk-taking and boundary-crossing artistic endeavours struggle to find their place in present day India. The EAP hopes to offer a distinct alternative to art dictated by the market or by the state. Explains IFA's Shai Heredia, “The aim of the programme is to encourage critical and reflective arts practice that offers audiences new ways of experiencing art.”
The treatment of text in the performance is certainly very new with short disconnected lines repeated like a motif. Apparently random and inchoate, the text appeared in the mesh of the freewheeling performance, to take on a deeply personal meaning and allowed the audience to enter the charged emotional space created by Dogra.
However, it stopped short of ladling it out to the audience and urged them to turn within for meaning, a meaning deliberately withheld by the performer. “I used my personal narrative to give a link or a hint but I changed it so that it could never be a faithful copy of my story. The point is to use that take off point from my stories and go discover your own stories,” says Dogra.
On the face of it the fractured narrative could not be of any help. What could one make of the following lines which seemed sawed off abruptly and yet also capable of rousing a deep wellspring of half remembered emotion. “I stayed back…in a jar of pickles… I stayed in a jar of pickles. Or the absolutely Punjabi achar da martban tuppe rakhde yu (keep the pickle jar in the sun).”
At some points in the show, Dogra would splay her hands wide, making eye contact with someone in the audience and say, “It's a butterfly I dried it through the spring. See it is still so beautiful, and pure and intact,” before repeating ...beautiful and pure and intact…a phrase which in its repetition took on sadness and menace in equal measure.
Hopefully, such performances will create a new appetite for more practitioners who take risks and viewers who want to be a part of the immediacy and unpredictability of such experiments.