Jyoti Dogra’s brilliantly crafted performance piece, Notes on Chai, discovers the universal in the ordinary
Asking of yourself questions for which there aren’t any straight, easy, candyfloss answers isn’t a pleasant exercise. It stirs up an otherwise good enough Friday evening and comes in the way of other mundanities—drinks, dinners, emails, sounds—that you have planned for the weekend. That those unsought questions and unavailable answers happen to be about mundane things does nothing to slow down the thought express.
That is what Jyoti Dogra’s brilliantly crafted performance piece Notes on Chai does. It makes you melancholic, it makes you reflect on things you would rather stay under the carpet and it makes you laugh at yourself and at memories and anecdotes of caricatures that are instantly recognisable.
Just before the performance in Bangalore last week, over sips of chai from a kulhad, you read from a note that terms the piece devised by Dogra as ‘a collection of snippets of everyday conversations interwoven with abstract sound explorations that attempt to relocate our relationship with the quotidian’.
Even divided across geographies, linguistics, economic status and other parameters, there is much that is similar amongst people everywhere. If we haven’t chanced upon these familiar characters as we go about a routine day, then we are them, at least in part.
Notes on Chai looks at the everyday, the ‘attempt is to create, through a series of portrayals, a collective sense of the everyday, which resonates with a universal sense of the ordinary across cultures and hopefully across different socio-economic strata’. Interspersed with these portrayals are abstract, guttural sounds inspired by Tibetan chanting, western harmonics and extended vocal techniques. What they seek to do perhaps is to stretch the limits of spoken language, while also facilitating a near seamless travel from one snippet to the next.
Dogra begins with the autobiographical; while going over the tape of her day’s rehearsals, she is constantly interrupted by thoughts of how fat she looks, of having to clean the mess in her bedroom, of ‘why hasn’t he emailed still’, periodically berating herself for being this distracted. She is next a Punjabi wife, the kind who would feature in a K-soap, talking of her morning chai ritual, how she would rather have a cuppa alone in the balcony rather than share that time with her husband. The communicable word chai morphs into a chant, Dogra’s throat throbs furiously as she borrows from Jerzy Grotowski’s theatre style to represent the tea pot, the tea cup, the act of drinking tea with her hands, her body.
Dogra is also an old Punjabi woman from Lahore who, in her raspy, weather- worn voice, dismisses coffee; she likes her chai thick, with the milk undiluted, without sugar, for she has the sugar disease from 1992. Her slurps from the chai cup lead to abstract sounds lead to a woman with weight issues lead to ‘happy birthday’ in barely recognisable sounds. And then a government clerk who recites the same thing over and over again, never missing a rehearsed line, even stopping mid-sentence because it is chai break. A society lady enslaved by her appointments diary, her social calendar full of yoga for inner peace and green tea from Malaysia with the right flavour, the crotch-scratching man who wants to make ‘fraandship’ with the English girl he gives directions to, a typical middle-class man, a woman who wants to escape it all…there isn’t a character who isn’t recognisable.
Through her characters, Dogra forces you to relook the mundane that crowds each of our lives. A struggle to escape from the routine is familiar, always sought after, rarely achieved. We find happiness, or something resembling it, in spite of the mundane. Routines are repeated, resumed, started again, it is a cycle. Notes on Chai presents a segue of such meditations, sounds and movements, leaving in its wake a realisation that no matter how different we all are, we all are also pretty much the same.