Notes on ‘Notes on Chai’

 

(Published in Aainanagar, May 2016)

“‘…It’s always six o’ clock now.’
A bright idea came into Alice’s head. ‘Is that why so many tea-things are put out here?’ she asked.
‘Yes, that’s it’ said the Hatter with a sigh, ‘it’s always tea-time, and we’ve no time to wash the things between whiles.’
‘Then you keep moving round I suppose?’ said Alice.
‘Exactly so,’ said the Hatter, ‘as the things get used up.’
‘But what happens when you come to the beginning again?’ Alice ventured to ask.
‘Suppose we change the subject,’ the March Hare interrupted, yawning, ‘I’m getting tired of this. I vote the young lady tells us a story.’”

And then the dormouse tells the tale of the three little sisters who lived at the bottom of a well, living on treacle, and were very, very ill all the bloody time.

In fact, something similar happens in actor/writer Jyoti Dogra’s ‘Notes on Chai’.

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It is not a coincidence that since April 8th, 2016, when I watched this one-woman act created and performed by Jyoti Dogra at Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai, I have been encountering the word ‘Chai’ or ‘Tea’ more frequently than before. Dogra loosely weaves a bunch of narratives together through their relationship with tea. The angst and salvation, sin and medicine, love and hate that the mimicked voices of the protagonists of these narratives pour into their cups of tea are bound to make one look differently at her everyday-life revolving around tea—making tea, drinking tea, watching others making or drinking tea, thinking of tea, not thinking of tea, not thinking of others thinking of tea and so on. These voices—very well-observed by Dogra, thus perfectly catching and exaggerating their characteristic nuances—are political in nature. This very politics is also one of the selling-points of her work as this is what makes it something larger than simple mimicry. The Alices, Mad Hatters, March Hares, Dormice and Little Girls living at the bottom of wells that Dogra draws on the stage, strike many a tragicomic chord in the hearts of the audience. But as her work becomes an overt political statement in certain matters, it remains politically blind to certain others.

Tea, in general, can be interesting to an Indian audience for many reasons—being not just a culinary but more of a social ritual in Indian households at every occasion of laughter and sorrow, get-togethers and getting-away, being a symbol of orientalism, representing status statements, style statements, brand names, art, skill, serving as nutrient, laxative, addiction, anti-depressant, being a source of hundreds of roles and professions distinguished by class, caste and gender, being one of the deeply influential colonial residuals, being one of the most important exported goods and last but not the least being one of the biggest Indian industries possessing one of the most unfair labour policies. These are ‘tea-matters’ that affect our lives—sometimes in remote ways—irrespective of whether we acknowledge them or not. But contrary to what the name of the piece suggests, ‘Notes on Chai’ remains blissfully ignorant of most of these, making the title almost a misnomer. Nonetheless, it is a beautifully done piece. Therefore, I may (and I do) stand up for Dogra at the end of the often-mesmerizing 1 hour and 40 minutes, clap, hoot, cheer, appreciate and exclaim, but cannot totally evade some of the questions that comes to my mind—questions to Dogra as a creator and a performer, to fellow audience-members, but most importantly to myself—as a thinking being, as a woman, as Indian, as an addicted, certified, hopelessly devoted tea-drinker.

Playing the memory game

The voices represented by Dogra in her performance belong to women more frequently than men—not mentioned specifically, but judging by their characteristic nuances. Their lives and traumas get fused with their personal tea-rituals, and interestingly, in spite of being fairly miscellaneous in her choice of characters, Dogra never touches upon the third gender or any other form of trauma that may arise out of the questionable dualism of gender. The queue of characters is headed by Dogra herself, flapping her hands in front of her, like windscreen wipers, illustrating flashes of thoughts, dilemmas and faces she wears within herself. Then comes the rest—partitioned by phrases of throat singing symbolizing pain, disappointment, boredom, or by obsessive hysteric repetitions of words like ‘no’, ‘tea’, ‘‘happy’, ‘achchha’ (good)—continuing with its last syllable “chha chha chha…” and one cannot but notice its phonic similarity with the word ‘cha’ or tea. As if, not only she questions all that is uncritically perceived as ‘good things’ in life, but also critiques the tea-narratives associated with them. Sort of a bad example of such a ‘good thing’ could be the ‘achchhe din’ that we all are suffering from in this country, and an associated tea-narrative could be our prime minister boasting of having worked as a tea-seller in his youth—shows what a bizarre range tea has in our society, politics, culture and myth—not that Dogra incorporates electoral politics in her work, but nevertheless it is too tempting an example to be ignored!

Dogra’s repetitions of the words play with their abstractness—their phonetics as well as what they represent in the context of the current moment within the play—toying with the meaning, the speed, the image, the emotional synonyms and antonyms; like ‘happy’ could be interpreted as happiness as well as sadness, ‘no’ to something could be ‘yes’ to something else. The continuous transitions from one character to another makes her piece look like a beautiful morph video.

Dogra’s piece can be broadly thought of as divided in two phases. It starts with the rather neurotic voice of a version of Dogra—a Mumbaite woman—sitting in front of her computer—engrossed in her woes, waiting for an email from a man. She reprimands herself as the wait turns into a frantic apprehension. She prescribes herself the act of making tea and drinking it to calm her nerves down, to get back to her senses. Next comes the shy little lady, who immediately claims to be happy! Slowly, she reveals through hesitant, innocent gestures and small personal anecdotes how she came from a small town. But there she found much more space within her family and herself compared to what she is left with now, in her metro-city flat, where she lives with her husband. Aspiring either to excel in fashion-designing or to crack the ‘Indian Idol’ auditions, she ends up working as an LIC office-worker, thanks to her husband’s paranoia about the ‘fashion-world’. She finds her salvation in her morning-tea, which she drinks alone, sitting in the balcony—carefully pronounced as “balkuni” to emphasize the mildly unsophisticated North Indian accent. This is the only moment of the day she is able to savour as her own. She describes how she refuses to share this precious moment even with her apparently loving husband, though he often expresses his desire to join her.

A diabetic old woman follows, emphasizing on milk in her tea, but conjuring all her willpower towards a firm and convincing denial of sugar. The audience sees a continuous transition process with every toothless sip the old woman takes from her invisible cup. She sucks energy from her tea, grows bigger as she gets rid of her crouch, stands tall and suddenly transforms into a persistent man who has taken it to his heart to entertain his guest with a cup of tea. He fans his arms in a furious frenzy as he storms around the stage. The contrast of his compulsive, intrusive, violently polite insistence dramatically stands out against his rudeness towards the invisible person brewing the tea behind the curtain—a wife or a subordinate or an insignificant tea-maker who can be screamed at without consequences. Next comes a woman who is about to treat her office-colleagues on her birthday—the same special day that her husband does not remember any more. A clerk follows—unhelpful, bored, inert—squatting like a frog behind an invisible desk—parroting checklists out for applications—jumping back to humanity only as the bell rings announcing a twenty minutes long tea-break. Like the damsel from the small town, this clerk too does not want to let go of those few precious minutes, tries to catch it, to hold on to it, and fails. Dogra rolls on the floor, twists and turns and sits up wearing one by one a series of intersecting faces of an accomplished woman, a hysteric woman, anxious woman, clueless woman, obsequious woman, woman losing motivation, memory, meaning of life, friends, speech, faith, dignity. Working back and forth between these faces, they prescribe Yoga and a whole lot of other things that come “really good and really cheap” and if needed, that can easily be sent over to the audience through their drivers! As if these women, or rather this one woman who embodies them all, wants to believe that holding her center can really hold her back, save her from tripping into the abyss where she is headed. She breaks into a chant of frantic refusal to hear the truth that exists outside her cups of Malaysian green tea that too, she claims, is as really good and as really cheap as the rest.

Then comes an old man who quickly falls for a passerby young woman as if he is falling in love with his own lost youth and ends up inviting her to tea, hilariously ignoring her all-too-present boyfriend. Shifting from the tilted, halting walks of the old man, Dogra walks like a fashion model who, as represented by the FTVs, walks on and on like a Dorian Gray, oblivious to the rest of the world. As a counterpoint to this endless walk, later she takes up an aged male character who is unable to accept or understand his son’s ambitions, nor his failures. And as if to protest against his son, his wife and all that moves too fast or too inscrutably for him in the world, he just sits at one place, adamantly rooted to inertia of body and mind, equally oblivious as the beauty-walkers. The first phase of her piece consists of introducing these characters.

In the second phase of the performance Dogra goes back to some of the characters that she already introduced earlier. The woman with a forgotten birthday now expresses her frustration at having to go on with her life between her home and her work-place and “nothing ever happens” in her excruciatingly predictable life. The apparently happy small-town wife opens up to reveal another side of her life—her alcoholic nights, as against the immaculate cup of tea that became the symbol of her mornings in the beginning of the narrative. Instead of her much aspired freedom to follow her dreams, she achieves a sort of drunkard’s freedom—freedom that binds her in other ways. Alone, she breaks into a dark, masturbatory dance to express this—again contrasting her calm and composed morning-tea sessions—after her husband quickly indulges in his post-coitus slumber. She hints how her husband, possibly with the best intentions, makes her drink alcohol in order to satisfy his fetishes, which are apparently harmless but nevertheless disgust her and how slowly it turns into a regular ritual—again, comparable to the regularity of drinking tea. The diabetic old lady comes back to speak of having lost the flexibility of body but boasts about her social flexibility as a ‘yes-woman’ as against her daughter, who defies a coupledom socially forced on her. The mother calls her daughter’s thoughts unnecessary fusses. But at the same time, the she contradictorily enjoys her own freedom that comes with age and widowhood. Freedom at being able to cut her hair the way she wants, to wear pants, to be free of the responsibilities of the family, now that she is finally alone—wasted, compromised, but still finally free. All these women that Dogra presents are subservient ‘yes-women’, whose silent dissent at best takes the form of entertaining themselves with a lone cup of tea. It is as if they are not different characters but just one woman, who depicts different phases of her life, which are in essence all the same anyway.

At some point, this ever-consenting woman gives in, falls on her stomach and caresses herself to console, but the hands that touch her are not her own—those are the hands of her family and colleagues, her friends and lovers. Slowly, the caressing turns into abuse—groping, pulling, hitting. A circle completes as Dogra ends her performance with the windscreen wiper’s moves and the throat-singing—this time it is less majestic and more like a gurgling sound with its rough overtones. The protests, dissents, denials, fear, shame, submission, disappointment—all die down to repetition, iteration, fatigue and the inevitability of the everyday—in a way, a hopeless ending.

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In her work Dogra plays with memory. On the  one hand, these memoirs are borrowed from multiple sources. But on the other hand, instead of using this borrowed material in a third-person narrative, she internalizes them as her own, but not quite.  Rather, she selectively picks parts of lives of others—parts that she finds intriguing—using them intelligently, systematically, planning towards a logical as well as emotional conclusion to her notes. This process produces an intelligent dimension—her skillful identification with chunks of each character turns that respective chunk of the character’s narrative into something stunningly real. But this reality is apparent, since after all it is only a chunk and not the full thing. This reality is problematic, since there is always a flip side of the coin while working with the memoir form, which is, memory can almost never be entirely real. In life, a person’s memory is often manipulated by herself in order to create a fabricated version that suits her current position. This appropriated truth is then etched in her mind as something tangible that can be used with conviction to prove certain things about herself, whenever required. In the next level, that is, while narrating that particular piece of memory to someone else, more often than not she adds new layers of little falsity to evoke aspired reactions from the listener. In all probability Dogra’s narrators (hence their memories) are fictional. But at the same time they are real in a representational way. In that perspective, Dogra’s third-party depictions, decorated with tattered truths, oblivious omissions, easy empathy and subtle sensationalization—often masking certain other aspects of those narratives—add new yummy layers of selective truths aka falsity, which make her piece so tasty.

In a way her notes are like battles between the artist and her subjects—unfinished and so close-ended, so conclusive, so limited by the curse of predictability that they do not give the faces behind the representations a chance to create alternate realities, to break out of the realities forced on them. A concise, summarized and well-presented reality is more easily approachable by its audience than the impossibly tangled mess of the real reality, thus the former wins over the latter and makes stereotypes out of real human characters—this is a process inflicted by any performance exploring emotions and it comes with its own set of problems depending on the context. Heike Mlakar, in a discussion on memoir in literature, calls this gap a “lack of identity between what is written and the life itself, in short between experience and its representation”. She explains, quoting Rita Felski, how the text of a memoir, in the process of merging appropriated truths, keeps accumulating more appropriated truths and tends to become “infinitely extendible, an endless chain of signifiers that can never encapsulate the fullness of meaning which the author seeks and which would put an end to writing”! What lies beyond this writing or performing or whatever form of narration that decorates the narrator’s presentation? In which direction does art move? To an overwhelmingly large, unattainable space out of oneself? Or to a deeper, uglier, unwanted abyss of inner neurosis? Dogra’s work however, does not really move either way after a point, and hangs—availing the trick of empowerment that comes easily with the strong confessional form, but denying the complexities that this form deserves.

Since decoration has slowly started annoying me more than anything in a performance and elsewhere, and since Dogra decorates, albeit beautifully, I would rather come back to this lack of complexity in more precise details once I am done saying the good things about the play.

Worth a standing ovation

As I said earlier, it is difficult not to stand up for Dogra right after the performance ends. The witty but not over-the-top text that she writes for the piece, the perfectly exaggerated nuances of the characters she portrays, the infinite energy, the self-training needed for working with the bare minimum—nothing else but her body and her voice as tools—all that are worth a standing ovation without doubt.

There are many moments when the characters really come alive. As a friend mentioned—at times she forgot that it was just one woman on stage, as if a number of artists came in and went out one after another. And it was Dogra’s eye for small details that did this magic. Let us take the man who is hell-bound on making his guest accept a cup of tea, as if not only his reputation but his life depends on it. It reminded me of a man I knew, who regularly trashed his wife and children. But no one who hadn’t seen him within that intimate territory could ever imagine how mean he really could be. I cannot decide if ‘really’ is the correct word to use here. In both the intimate and formal territory of his life, he lived with full conviction. He truly believed that he was a good man who was ruined thanks to the family that he was unfortunate enough to be burdened with. How can one argue with that conviction? Dogra’s desperate fanning of the arms reminds me of the pain he took to be nice to the rest of the world. The more this character needs to be nice to the outer world—the guest, the meaner he turns to his inner world—the invisible tea-maker. And the inner world reacts by cowering, by being mean in turn when they can, by cheating, by failing, by silencing themselves, and the more aggressively this man then emanates hospitability to the outer world. It is a vicious cycle—like the continuous frenzied circular movements of hands Dogra performs.

The diabetic old woman is unforgettable. Every person in the audience must have met this omnipresent hag—hungry for food, for company, for all the things she was deprived of in her youth. One would find it way too sentimental a case, if not for Dogra’s perfect imitation and witty dialogues. Like the one where she sits and bends forward to touch her toes, fails and mischievously confides in her old woman’s lisps—“I haff long legs.”, or where she refuses coffee with almost a philosophical indifference but her eyes light up when she asks for tea, mixed with thick milk and not a drop of water. The refusal to the much-desired sugar and the particularity for milk appear like a metaphor for the complex dilemma between the conservative, patriarchal rule-bound life that she was accustomed to (in which a woman was shamed for exploration, enjoyment and dissent but nevertheless found little pockets of joy for herself) and the newfound free space that came too late in her life. A space that is certainly lonelier but that she obviously relishes.

The lady cursed with too predictable a life is another such gem, especially when she cries as one can only cry at a window seat in the last row of a crowded bus, when one fine evening life just stops making sense. She asks the audience whether the kohl in her eyes has smudged, lest one of her colleagues finds her in a disheveled state, as that would immediately buy her the reputation of a woman with a troubled family life. Her panicked questions probably touch many in the audience on a personal note.

But what is most personal to me is the lone morning-ritual of the woman from a small town. During my own adolescence I had the habit of pushing the curtains in my room to let the sun in just after waking up. And I remember being mad with my parents, with whom otherwise I had a friendly enough relationship, if they came to my room at that moment. That one moment gave me a sense of blissful solitude, of owning a space that I could never share with anyone else, nor did I feel inclined to. Later, since I started living alone, I never entertained a human presence or even a phone call if I could, when I woke up and had my first cup of tea. It may not be the morning-tea for another woman, it could be the afternoon-tiffin, or the evening-TV-soap or the pre-dinner bottle of beer or the minutes alone in the balcony or in front of the mirror before sleep. It could be the kitchen, the bathroom, the temple, the window seat of a local train or anywhere at all. Neither a physical space nor a mental space comes cheap though. Owning a space is a luxury that we are blessed with for few minutes a day—if lucky. Glimpses of this yearning for space—perfectly caught in the tea-narrative—is the best gift that Dogra’a piece gives me.

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Another memorable imitation is of the clerk, the way he eats up his words, simply because he is too tired to pronounce them over and over again. The inert but slimy, slightly predatory but bored frog-ish look that Dogra incorporates is perfect. That way all her personifications are perfect, sometimes a bit too perfect, risking these characters to be turned into mildly tiring stereotypes, such as the old man scratching his crotch, or the baby-voices of the shy, deprived wives. But this is how the comic is performed traditionally on stage—playing with the exaggerations, egging on the distortions, banking on the stereotypes. These are a caricaturist’s signature. Dogra’s performance, in the disguise of socially relevant issues incorporating profound forms and techniques, is first and foremost a stand-up comedy show. This simplicity and familiarity of the form is another selling point of this piece—making it easily approachable.

We—Dogra’s public—in our own little boxes

Good art, among other things, is a means of transit between the personal and the public. It is always interesting to try to figure out what sort of a public (or audience, if one likes) the artist had in mind when she created the piece. Of course the piece came from somewhere—an incident or a concept that moved the artist so much that she needed to share it through her creative language—something she felt was at stake. It could be a personal stake or a collective stake or a combination of both. Either way, the performance is a conduit between the interpretation of the stake by the artist and the acceptance, denial and reinterpretation of that same stake by the audience—creating together the plurality necessary for taking the discussion beyond a one-way conversation, to a shared intellectual space.

So, who were Dogra’s public the day I went to watch it? As far as could be seen, it was the arty folk of Chennai—performers, practitioners, sponsors, liberal intellectuals—the regular faces that can be seen in all the performances, art-galleries and literary fests in this city. They mostly seemed to love Dogra’s narratives. Why? Did they identify with her characters? Did it remind them of people they have known, movies they have seen, stories they have read? Was it a pure fellow-feeling for the artist who had come all the way to Chennai to perform? Was it a comic relief? Was it a tragic relief? May be it was a good combination of all this. But more precisely—as I ranted earlier—it was a combination of the right amount of mildly generic politicization and the shallow simplicity of the caricature form. In other words, it was the contrast of easily identifiable emotions and issues such as loneliness, gender-discrimination, marital rape, ageing-traumas, boredom, unfulfilled wish, work-pressure, lack of genuineness in social relationships etc., building up the tragedy part and the skillful mimicry of rather ‘unfamiliar’ characters (after all, there were not that many shy suburban wives, or desk-clerks, or self-proclaimed crotch-scratchers among the audience), building up the comedy part as well as a certain exoticism of ‘commonness’. This unfamiliarity was nice because in this way our spots of pain were being addressed, but we ourselves were not being exposed. Our own actions and motives, which were often responsible for causing these spots of pain were not being questioned. We were receiving a balm for free, without having to pay by disclosing our shameful diseases, even to ourselves.

I personally find this certain exoticism of talking about the ‘common man’ problematic because it unfairly forces these common men into the proverbial little boxes. After all the common man is not as common, as simple and as unidimensional as one is inclined to think. And so I am tempted to ask, albeit naively—couldn’t the shy suburban wife find couple of friends in her office and go for weekend trips, having fun on her own? What if she broke out of her husband’s conservatism? Why her own sexual desire had to be seen only as a reaction to her husband’s fetishes (I do wish that few pegs of whisky could make one so potently horny by the way, looks like I missed all the good fun in life)? What if the clerk exceled at poetry while sitting at his desk? What if the old lady was the one who went against the rest of her family and supported her daughter to come out of a bad relationship? What if the old man preferred bird-watching than brooding over unfulfilled romance? Why were most of the women so dramatically, hysterically, hopelessly unhappy? On the other hand, why was each character a consumer of tea and none were, for example, a tea-garden labour or a tea-maker in a shop, or even a maid-servant? Why, in spite of these being notes on tea, even the most basic questions were not touched upon, such as why in most Indian family-oriented households, women make tea more often than men? Why there was never a serious mention of the pricing or the economic gain and loss associated with tea? Where were the cross-role, cross-class, cross-gender socio-political-economic questions, solutions and alternates? Instead, what stood out was the recurring theme of solipsism and delicious victimization. The pleasure of watching such a show is qualitatively voyeuristic as well as masochistic. But once one gets used to its taste, somehow the representation becomes too linear. After that point “they all look just the same”!

But those are the boxes created by Dogra for her pet-characters. On this side of the hall it was us—the members of the audience—in our own boxes, caricaturing ourselves, picking on our own stereotypes. That is why three of us dancers involuntarily laughed out loud when Dogra-the-yoga-freak-woman instructed, or rather babbled about holding her center—this particular instruction being not only a physical one but also an intellectual, emotional and philosophical one for us. Same way, some of the men in the audience nervously giggled and commented sarcastically in collective whispers, when Dogra screamed “Behenchod” (sister-fucker) to the invisible tea-maker or quickly shifted her walk from that of a woman fashion model to a macho stride, nascissistically caressing her own biceps. These were the moments when Dogra’s stereotyping tool actually worked because they made the audience vulnerable, pulled unexpected reactions out of them, made them open up. After all we did not usually laugh when asked to hold our centers in a dance class, nor would these men publicly admit of being chauvinists or misogynists.

On the other hand, her victimizing tool almost never worked for me. It became even artistically boring, since we all were anyway sympathetic to these issues—at least in theory. Her re-enactments were not powerful enough to stir new thoughts in our mind about those issues. Besides those images of pathos have already been overused in various forms of classical and contemporary art and literature. Although thanks to a fellow-audience member, at least the scene of marital-rape unexpectedly became a matter of newfound interest. As soon as Dogra started to enact the various dominated sexual positions that the suburban woman is in a way forced to submit to by her husband, this man broke into a semi-loud guffaw. I wish that placing this man among the audience was one of Dogra’s clever ploys to incorporate a dark absurdist humour to her piece, but fortunately or unfortunately that did not seem to be the case. Last but not the least, as if to make it up for the lack of dissent in Dogra’s voice, a baby in the audience frequently made everyone’s life interesting through its natural dissent towards the adult world.

But distractions apart, the question remains—whom do Dogra’s target audience consist of? Is it part of her performance-plan to take it to the level of the shy, innocent, tormented wives, the lone, abandoned, sex-deprived old men and women, the neurotic lovesick and the bored clerks? Is it a matter of solidarity, or support, or psychoanalysis, or plain representation? Also, as one is bound to ask in the context of any performance, why choose this particular space—the proscenium stage? The intimate, conversational form that Dogra uses—would it not be more suitable in an alternate performing space? May be a room where the artist sits among the audience, for example. That could make it a more appropriate statement about how these characters are scattered right among us. That could ask me more poignantly whether the box that I created around myself was indeed mine, or whether I secretly belong to one of Dogra’s pet boxes.

Technique and form

Tea is rather a metaphor for an average Indian, who is ‘reused with modification’ in Dogra’s show, through certain form and technique. During her other solo works Dogra has talked about her affinity—technique-wise—towards Grotowski’s theater practices—the voice-works, the physicality, working towards stimulating a certain collective consciousness. This piece can also be conceived within that same genre. Her throat-singing is impressive but somehow it feels like it is not used to its full extent of possibilities. Her voice-imitations are superb. What is genuinely admirable in her piece is her energy. Even though she more or less works in a symmetric framework as far as space is concerned, a combination of her ever-changing expressions, her story-telling abilities, her general presence and the physically as well as emotionally inhibitionless manner captivates the eye almost till the end of the play and keeps the stage pulsating. Just the thought about the amount of body-work that has gone behind this presentation makes someone interested in the body and its movements break into applause all over again.

Above, I already mentioned how Dogra’s form of memoir more than anything else resembles that of a stand-up comedian. Be it the Vaudeville or the Chakyar Koothu, Rowan Atkinson or Aditi Mittal, the basic tools that these artists use are essentially same as what Dogra uses—sarcasm towards anybody and anything including oneself, exaggerating human folly, fusing our inner and outer worlds that one usually prefers to keep separate, communicating with the audience in order to drag them into the piece—thus selectively breaking the proscenium, pouring tragedy and comedy one into another, using mostly text and for the rest of the times familiar gestures—toying with their uses. But caricatures often come with great sadness buried within and the profoundness of a stand-up comedy depends on the depth of understanding by the comedian of the matter under her ridicules. Dogra’s performance in totality, as discussed earlier, lacks in this respect. Even while involving the audience, Dogra keeps it tightly under her control. She does not improvise, asks well-set questions, does not react even when provoked—such as the guffaw or the whispers—and somehow, does not really allow space for the audience to think. In that manner, it is almost like a classical dance performance, where the ‘Nayika’s come and go, depicting their stories in well-set formulae. Even the breaks Dogra constructs for moving to the next character resemble the classically prescribed routine of ‘thattimettu’ to ‘aruthi’ indicating, through repetitive movements, the clear breaks between different parts of the narrative being performed. This becomes a predictable pattern after a point.

All in all, Dogra’s form does not allow her to go out of her comfort-zone into randomness, possibly also because it has been a while since the piece was created by her and by now it has been set to a fixed tune after being performed for several years, so the moments of surprise are gone. If we extend our definitions far enough and consider books to be ‘literary performances’, then one such performance comes to mind in comparison to Dogra’s. It is Piya Chatterjee’s ‘A Time for Tea’. This book, in spite of being an academic text on Chatterjee’s fieldwork among women labours in tea plantations in North Bengal, alternates forms between a memoir while depicting her research, and a play while raising questions and protests based on her observations. The sections holding the play are written mostly in linear dialogues and monologues, sometimes using absurd images and texts. The section holding the memoir is amply, purposefully stunted with what Chatterjee calls the “third-voice displacements”.

“By re-presenting the dialogues through the text (rather than in set quotes), I indicate the specific and detailed conditions of their ‘making’. In so doing, I seek to highlight the manufacture of the stories, the artifice of the narrative. As such, the prose dialogues are offered as re-presentations rather than as perfectly captured ‘talk’.”

Her play is explicitly “an allegory of plantation history in which certain archetypes are constituted […], it weaves together other historical narratives, ranging from primary documents to novels, through the freedom of ‘voice’ that theater allows.” The interchanging form in her observational literary performance makes space for different voices—the observer, the observed and the actor—each gets a chance to speak and at least the observer and the observed often get a chance to interchange their roles, thanks to the generous provision of the third-voice displacement: for example when a young Nepali supervisor warns her against walking in the sun in the tea plants lest she becomes “darker”, or when she goes to a tea-labour’s (Anjali Mirdha) house in a Darjeeling tea plantation and is served the “espeshal lal cha” (special red tea):

“Everyone laughs at my bewilderment. Anjali explains that this is the tea rationed to workers and made from the lowest grade of tea powder at the end of factory manufacture. The espeshal tea is offered with its own product brand of good-humored sarcasm.”

Of course Chatterjee weaves her book as she finds suitable for her audience, her own brand of tea-drinkers. But the ‘freedom of voice’ of the theater form that she mentioned—how is that freedom incorporated in the tea-performance by Dogra? After all her piece is also an allegory of certain parts of our social narratives and technique-wise heavily based on usage of archetypes. The memoir form and the stage indeed brings power and freedom of voice, but whose power, whose freedom is it? In Dogra’s one-way observation process—un-criticized by the ‘third voice’, in her choice of subjects, in her way too carefully selected moments of involvement with the audience, all the power and freedom remains her own, instead of becoming an exchange. In terms of generating a collective consciousness, it remains unclear what one should be conscious about, collectively or individually.

So, whose chai was it?

This question was already asked several times above. It was also mentioned that the questions raised by Dogra remain vague and the representation of certain characters in their momentary woes become the main object of the performance. These characters are essentially from the upper or middle class of the society—thriving within the heterosexual binary. Their traumas characteristically belong to that same class. They do not lack money, food, medicine or education. They are not bothered about their caste or gender identity. They also solely belong to the consumer’s class, as they almost never seem to be undergoing the process of creating anything at all—not even a cup of tea! It is not clear whether it is an intentional critique of our society through the play, or an unintentional giving away of the fact about where the performer and the audience belonged.

Even though Dogra rarely touches upon the gender-questions, she does ponder on certain controversies regarding the woman body. Funnily, the first thing that comes to my mind when she walks onto the stage in the beginning is, she looks fatter than her pictures! Within few moments the memory of this thought makes me cringe inside as she, while enacting a woman’s role, throws a question to an invisible friend whether she has indeed become a bit fat and panics at hearing the affirmative. But apart from this one moment, there is rarely any question against the hierarchy of the politics of aesthetics regarding the body. Even in the case of the victim of marital rape, which constructs one of the most high-strung moments in the play, the woman seems to find the courage to come in terms with her body and bodily pleasures only with the help of alcohol! What could really become a liberating voice of freedom in the piece remains a modern version of Bimal Kar’s novel ‘Saheb-Bibi-Golam’ (The Gentleman, the lady and the servant) all over again. Weill, at least the novel spends hundreds of pages to unfold the peculiarities and complexities of its characters. This emotional game made sense as a creative piece in 1960s. Ironically though, even in the ’60s, this novel was written with the ‘servant’ as the central character, whereas the 21st century version created by Dogra is still about ‘the ladies’ and ‘the gentlemen’ of our society. However, the novel narrated the story of the wife of a regular rich, alcoholic john from an aristocratic family. She took to drinking to bind her husband to herself and then their lives immersed in a whirlpool of losses. Today, sitting in a fancy hall in a metro-city in 2016, watching one of the most accomplished practitioners of the Indian contemporary theater, one only feels regret at having to watch the same emotional stake being predictably implemented as a creative goal. Dogra illustrates the overused comparison of freshness, purity and innocence of a woman through the imagery of the morning tea and the darkness, impurity and neurosis of the same woman through that of alcohol. Dogra’s contemporary text and movement may have been much more explicitly sexual than the twentieth century parallels, but even in a mildly feminist framework of critique of contemporary art this is disappointing.

d4

Piya Chatterjee recalls in her book the objectified, sexualized usage of images of pretty nimble-fingered tea-pickers (as against the real tea-pickers who have dirty, darkened fingers—often swollen and crooked) and well-off women consuming tea at leisure on the covers of tea-packages. She writes in the context of colonial advent of tea to India, “the English aristocracy and its thirsty upper classes created iconic and enduring images of leisure—and femininity—around tea drinking.” Dogra’s performance too ends up creating the same images of prettiness, sexualized elitism and femininity. Even if I tend to believe that behind her apparent simplistic depictions and lack of questioning, there lies a silent discourse of sarcastic criticism of the stereotypes, the fact remains that Dogra as a performer still relies strongly on the ‘beautiful body’—shaved, long-haired, exotic, graceful and sexy. Deliberately or not, this ‘beautiful body’ comes as an inevitably handy tool in her work. But then may be it is my fault and not hers, as personally being more familiar to dance than any other form of performance, my first feelings about a performance comes from solely watching the performing body move. May be a person like me should not be criticizing theater because theater is possibly a lot about imagining the present body to be representing an absent personality. But for a dancer that sounds almost unethical, because a dancer’s tool to connect her performance to the audience is her own body and that is closest to what one understands as ‘honesty’ on stage. Somehow, Dogra’s body on stage is not honest enough for me. It copies the ‘gestures’, itappears to be—very efficiently so. But it never becomes. Rather, it remains too careful to be seen as a challenge, too neutral for a statement, and just too eager to entertain. As soon as a moment comes to critically question the representation of a character, it is abandoned and a new story begins—exactly as the March Hare would have proposed. Thus the crockery remains unwashed and the three little sisters are never able to come out of the bottom of their well, their teeth forever stuck in the treacle.

This is what probably bothers me the most as an audience-member with an expectation out of a veteran woman performer, who has all the potentials to take her performance to the next level, really breaking the format of the one-way communication of the artist with her subjects as well with her audience. It is never clear why Dogra chooses the particular characters because she almost never takes a stance. And without a firm standpoint, her notes remain obscure observations—mildly irresponsible in the sense that her notes own their subjects only superficially and never embrace their complex, contradictory dimensions. Dogra herself has described her piece as “images and conversations simultaneously in the everyday world and at the edge of it”, but her body and her performing self remains centralized and fails to stretch till that edge where the stories of the marginalized—as described by Chatterjee—“sit in the shadows of impossible representations”.

Even tea itself—as a substance, as art, as a political object—remains just an interesting title.

***

Photos: Nicked from the internet with a heavy conscience.

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