When two black holes crashed into each other in a distant galaxy nearly 1.3 billion years ago, they set off ripples that would eventually prove Einstein’s general theory of relativity, give humans new insights into the universe, and inspire an experimental play in India.
The ripples from the colliding black holes – called gravitational waves – were first detected by a US-based observatory in September 2015. That discovery was confirmation of Einstein’s belief from a century before, and a catalyst for Indian film and theatre actor Jyoti Dogra. Always interested in “black holes, nebulae and quantum entanglement”, Dogra had been contemplating writing a play based on astrophysics. The discovery firmed up her plans.
The play, Black Hole, premiered at the Odd Bird Theatre in Delhi in December. It was the culmination of over three years of research, improvisation, a visit to the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (more commonly known as CERN), a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts, and several moments of self-doubt, when Dogra considered abandoning the project.
Black Hole is a 90-minute, solo, devised theatre piece. The narrative revolves around three characters: a couple and their terminally ill relative. In a desperate bid to get away from their everyday reality of hospitals and medicine, as well as to make sense of death, the protagonist and the patient start to talk about science, the universe and its mysteries.
“A lot of people, even if they don’t know the science of the black hole, imagine it as an endless void, as a thing you fall into and never come back,” said Dogra. “And I started wondering…what is it about a black hole that in a collective imagination, you sort of have a sense of familiarity [with]?”
Throughout the play, Dogra tries to answer one question: what is it about a black hole that intrigues us? She builds bridges between science and the human condition, to try and understand it. For example, she draws parallels between the concept of singularity in the black hole, and the feeling of oneness humans often experience with their loved ones or with nature.
In places, Dogra portrays the intersection between cosmic science and human experience with refreshing lightness. There is a scene in the play, for instance, where a protagonist mentions that when a neutrino passed through her she was hanging clothes out to dry. Neutrinos are mysterious particles raining down on Earth, and in September 2017, a neutrino was detected by an observatory in Antarctica.
Black Hole wasn’t the only Indian play to straddle space science and humanity in 2018. The Yuki Ellias-directed Hello Farmaaish, inspired by Kalpana Chawla’s space odyssey, premiered in September. Antariksha Sanchar, a science-fiction Bharatanatyam opera, loosely based on the life of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, opened in late November in Mumbai.
Still, what set Black Hole apart was the extent to which it incorporated scientific elements and yet managed to tie them back to existential questions. Another difference was Dogra’s approach to theatre, which is influenced by Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. “The work is very invested in the body of the actor,” said Dogra. “This does not necessarily mean movement or dance. It basically means trying to find performative material from the body. You don’t look at text and then craft movement for it. You begin with an impulse in the body and you start to translate that impulse into a sound, into a text, into breath, into a performative segment of any kind.”
Black Hole begins like a lot of Dogra’s work normally does – with no topic, text or script – “from an empty space”. News of the gravitational wave’s discovery set off something in her mind, and it started to manifest in her practice. The idea developed over months and gathered steam during a visit in June 2017 to Zurich, where she showed her work to “three dramaturges and two physicists”. “I had 30 minutes of the play then,” she said. “I was really surprised by how they saw it, because they came from very specific spaces.”
Though there are similarities of method and form between Dogra’s new and previous works, such as Notes on Chai, Black Hole was a different beast. Partly this was because of the subject itself – the science as well as the philosophy behind the science. For Black Hole isn’t just about science, but about the connection between science and the human experience. While the audience might come away with more information about black holes and the universe, what lingers in the mind is the terrible attraction of the black hole to a dying woman and her distressed relatives.
All photos courtesy Jyoti Dogra.