These little pockets of urban desolation include many women, but Notes on Chai is not in essence a gender-piece (to follow a current trend in Indian theatre). Here, human follies take centrestage rather than the baggage of male privilege or the spectre of feminine victimhood.
As we settle in to watch Jyoti Dogra’s new one-woman show, Notes on Chai, there is initially a dour, slightly stylized, wryness that looms over the proceedings. Ms Dogra is a striking presence on stage, but makes scant effort to endear herself as a winsome hostess of ceremonies. The setting is minimalist, and the lighting is without its quirks. However, she has a transformative experience in store for us. It’s hard to ascertain exactly when the flavor of the evening changes. Perhaps, it’s when she starts springing character upon character with seeming abandon on an unsuspecting audience. That’s not it, either. After all, one of the usual tropes of stage monologues are the multiple parts a singular actor inhabits (sometimes insufferably) as a showcase of notional virtuosity. But as she has demonstrated time and again, Ms Dogra is not a run-of-the-mill artist concerned with showing off her range or coasting by on charm alone.
An important piece in the puzzle is the play’s inventive soundscape generated by the performer herself. Her areas of research have included Tibetan Buddhist chanting and Western overtone singing techniques, but she’s also a keen record-keeper of the guttural noises she encounters around herself. This could be the slurping of hot scalding tea off a saucer, or the habitual clearing of a sinus-afflicted throat, or even a signature phrase uttered almost flippantly that when replicated ad infinitum becomes a whole psyche. The assimilation of these embittered souls seamlessly creates a network of kindred spirits who appear to be linked through only the sounds that reverberate in their wind-pipes. Funnily, the sparseness of the stage is now exchanged for worlds that are rich and textured and real. We appear to swim along in a luminal universe that is perhaps akin to one evoked by a graphic novel, full of boxed-in black and white illustrations, where the leap from panel to panel and the magnifying of emotions is achieved just as adroitly. The extending of a speech bubble from one box to another creates these resonating essences that elevates the play into a work of uncommon beauty.
This soft chiaroscuro of human nature yields an array of interesting ‘types’. The shrill protestations of a socialite living beyond her means become a plea for help from a desperate and lonely soul. The conditioned obsequiousness of a wheeler-dealer when dealing with a client, while being abusive to his own wife, gives us a measure of persisting social disparities. An old woman gallantly holding on to her individuality despite her body slowly giving up on her, or an office-girl who is almost a puppet to the zeitgeist with her calorie counting and selfie obsession, or even a man obsessed with tourists from London whose crotch-rubbing becomes his schtick — they are all unquestioning victims of a mundane mainstream culture in which individuality seems to have been stamped out. These little pockets of urban desolation include many women, but Notes on Chai is not in essence a gender-piece (to follow a current trend in Indian theatre). Here, human follies take centrestage rather than the baggage of male privilege or the spectre of feminine victimhood.
Initially, the satire seems unkind and judgmental, and Ms Dogra’s gaze, that of a voyeur, even if she subjects her own quotidian affairs (the all-consuming task of editing reams of film footage, for instance) to as much scrutiny as the lives of others that she seeks to deconstruct. The characters are stripped down to their broad vulnerabilities, but they stop appearing as stock characters — their stereotypical tics ironed out even as the quirks in their speech have been amplified. When she achieves the continuum between them, herself and us, her compassion ultimately shines through. It’s a bleak dystopia, in the same vein as The Catcher in the Rye, but its beauty lies in the telling of these stories with such empathy, rather than disdain.
Ms Dogra does allow herself a stray moment of indulgence in one of the play’s meta moments, when a character emerges, seemingly having watched the performance, and deeply unsettled by it. The play within has offered up such a harsh mirror to her soul that it drives her to an angry outburst. Although full of much soul-searching, the play, as it stands, is perhaps not capable of such a catharsis (the scene is somewhat cheeky, even if it is not be taken literally). Ms Dogra has no solutions, of course, and such plays are usually played out to audiences that do not usually include the kind of people that she has chosen to train her eye upon. However, her achievement lies in creating a new grammar of story telling — an almost verbatim stream of consciousness — in which she is a virtual simulation machine, the likes of which haven’t been frequently encountered on the Indian stage.