The Doorway, solo performance art by Jyoti Dogra
English, Hindi, Punjabi, non-verbal, 75 mins
at Bharat Rang Mahotsav, National School of Drama, New Delhi
7th January 2010
In a bare darkened hall, only a metal doorpost at the far end is lit, its frames glinting, and from somewhere behind it in the dark come shuffling, animal sounds. Muffled, confused and interspersed with gibberish, it sounds like a bewildered, trapped creature as the performer steps into the light and moves under the bar of the doorway. She continues to speak, chiefly to herself in this half-tone of gibberish, darting furtive looks around her at the dark hall and the silent watching eyes, as she moves, bending and twisting her limbs, like an animal tentatively exploring its surroundings.
This is The Doorway, a solo performance work by actor and and performance artist Jyoti Dogra, enacted recently as part of the annual Bharat Rang Mahotsav (National Theatre Festival) at the National School of Drama. The physical and symbolic 'doorway' is used to explore the inhabiting of 'open' and 'closed' spaces, and to weave a narrative using memory, gestures and silences with the associations evoked in the viewer.
Dogra performs using the metal doorway as the sole prop, moving through and around it with animal-like gait and gestures. She climbs it, fits herself in the tight little space of the doorway, curls up against it, hangs from it swinging like a child, contorts her body and moves stealthily, spouting gibberish laced with a few comprehensible words spoken from somewhere under her bent-over legs. There is the discernible but strange 'I stayed in a jar of pickles' leading to the Punjabi ‘Achar da martaban tuppe rakh diyo’ (‘place the pickle jar out in the sun’), and the langorously drawn out 'empty' that becomes 'emmteeeee' – the words, images and the rhythm are absurd to some, and spark off associations and memories in others. The doorway becomes a symbolic portal to spaces and experiences, as much as the site of experience itself; the place of entry and exit into inner and outer, real and imaginary spaces.
Using minimal text in three languages with no prepared script, Dogra powerfully conveys humour, imagination, longing, pain, loss, want and memory. In parts, a young child wanting to fly, a trapped person, an old woman spitting out phlegm shooing kids away, a woman boldly examining the throes of physical desire, a chameleon flicking its tongue and darting its head curiously at the audience, the performer is many—the vignettes are unconnected, powerful, shocking, absurd and profound, culled from personal history, fairytales and folktales, imagination and life.
Speaking through her bodily gestures, movements, speech and silences, Dogra explores themes of love, loss, sexuality, pain, death and emptines. Her created images hold individual associations for the audience—profound meaning for some, plainly unmoving or offensive to others. People see different things—terrible violence here, tenderness there, fear and loss elsewhere — reacting primally, tapping into their subconsious memory. With no structured narrative, the performance is intended to explore themes, inviting the audience to participate with their own imagination, 'to go discover their own stories'.
Dressed in a costume of torn and patched together clothing, Dogra lays bare an expanse of skin as well as her personal self; the physicality of her performance a strong presence for the audience to contend with as the light glints off her honey coloured shoulders. She attempts to create a visceral and immediate experience for the audience. Not the viewing of a single text but to make meaning jointly with the viewers, who can take back a uniquely personal and individual experience when the performance ends. Using methods of Grotowski's 'poor theatre', Dogra teases this further by occasionally turning the lights onto the audience and addressing them directly, challenging the mobile performer-passive spectator code. The watcher now becomes the watched and the audience members look on, expectant, suddenly uncomfortable.
Pushing for a more intuitive, experiential way of presenting and understanding theatre, “The Doorway” is a fluid and evolving work. Staged as an organic process, it responds to changes in each performance—more spontaneous than 'prepared'. Audiences are invited to attend the performance again at a later time to see how the performance has evolved as well as their own response to it: what moved them earlier might not now, and the experience might be entirely different.
Dogra has performed the piece in small and big towns all over the country to great acclaim since its premiere in Mumbai in mid-2009. She is determined to take it to more small towns, saying in an interview: 'I don't believe that experiemental work is meant only for cool urban centres.’ She finds small towns a whole lot 'more honest and unguarded' in their response to the piece than the metropolises.
Remarkably, for a freewheeling performance with no fixed script that relies on gestures and movements in an audience-inclusive work, “Doorway” is a solid, taut, strong performance that never slacks or loses steam, with no trace of the gimmickry that dogs most solo experimental performances. That the audience is absorbed and intrigued throughout in a work that demands so much of them speaks volumes for the raw honesty of the work and the artist’s approach.
Gutsy and honest, Dogra packs in a stunning performance. Pushing the envelope and powerful in impact, The Doorway is that rare thing - a truly challenging and experimental theatre. Mincing no words and bravely willing to take risks, Dogra is an exciting performer to watch out for.
(Top image: courtesy of Adishakti Theater Arts; Middle and bottom image courtesy of the National School of Drama.)