A scene from Black Hole
A woman stands at the edge of a black hole, waiting to be pulled in so that she can become one with the universe. But, the black hole “just sits there looking” at her, teasing her to jump and she is unable to. With an opening scene of herself teetering on the edge of a white bed sheet that represents a black hole, Jyoti Dogra introduces the oddballs — from an unnamed astrophysics-obsessed protagonist to the universe itself — that make up the dramatis personae of her play, Black Hole. The production was staged as part of the recent Saarang Festival in Pune.
Dogra, who started with conventional, script-based theatre in Delhi in the 1990s, has developed her own style with the plays Notes on Chai (2013) and Toye (2016), in which her body is left free to create narratives, movements and sounds. The technique has grown in power with Black Hole, a solo in which the protagonist is lost in the wonderland of spacetime while taking care of her dying mother. After her mother decrees that there will be no conversation about her health and she wants to hear new things, the woman takes up astrophysics with her.
She draws the audience into her story early by speaking directly to them as much as to her mother. “The hydrogen in your body is the exact same that was there at the time of the Big Bang,” she says. In another scene, she adds, “The iron in the blood is the exact same iron as in a neutron star.” Yet, it is not the scientific trivia but the impressions these create that make Black Hole a layered script. “When the gravitational wave started 1.3 billion years ago, there were just single-celled bacteria on earth. By the time it arrived here on Monday afternoon, 3.20 pm, September 15, 2016, I was there to receive it,” says the narrator, referring to the sunlight that falls in the hospital cabin where her mother stays. A lot of people, who watch Black Hole, will not look at sunlight the same way again.
Astrophysics is, however, a vehicle to explore ideas of mortality and existence. Dogra outlines her body in the first few minutes of the show but, as the narrative progresses, she makes the audiences realise that the human body has no boundaries. It is made up of atoms that are billions of years old and will continue to live on earth and space after the person has passed on. She does not talk about the futility of building walls and establishing borders. Instead, she asks,“Do you feel at home in the universe?” Death, Dogra shows, is not the end. The protagonist's desire to end herself by falling into the black hole and her inability to do so appear like the universal metaphor for life itself.
Nothing much happens in Black Hole, yet it continues to unfold days after the show. This is because a lot takes place in the imagination of the audience — as with Dogra’s other shows — from the death scene to the gravitational pull inside a black hole. The audience is left to wonder how the human body is a universe in itself and yet only a part of the universe.
The physicality that marks Dogra's plays emerges in the felicity with which she uses her only prop, a white “100 per cent cotton” bed sheet. Twisted, rolled or spread, the bed sheet becomes a symbol of a man and woman in the middle of love-making, a demonstration of the scientific phenomenon of singularity or a fabric stained with drops of blood after the protagonist slices her wrist.
Dogra's performance is aided by the light and projection design by Anuj Chopra. The play of light and dark on the stage are metaphors as well as means to effectively evoke, both, the intimacy of a woman talking to her lover and the vastness of space. Sound design is by Neel Chaudhari, who, in a powerful scene, creates the impression of stars emerging above the desert of Jaisalmer with music, as the three protagonists Dogra plays — the unnamed woman, her mother and her male partner — stand on the sand, looking up.