‘Being an adult is about hiding your shame’
Theatre maker Jyoti Dogra latest work, Maas, tackles what we barely speak of: internalised patriarchy, the fitness and beauty industries, ageing, and menopause
A 50-year-old woman takes the stage at Prithvi Theatre. She’s wearing a tight-fitted red tank top, pants and boots. She starts a slow striptease, and is met with stunned silence from the audience. After a couple of minutes, people begin to shuffle in their seats. Suddenly, she snaps, “This was a dream sequence”. Jyoti Dogra, in her 100-minute solo performance titled Maas, has the audience entranced.
Dogra’s first solo performance, Doorway, was in 2009, and she has garnered much critical acclaim with audiences the world over since then. Notes on Chai saw her work on themes like life in big cities, delivered like chatter over a cup of tea, and Black Hole, a performative exploration of astrophysics was also a rumination on the death of a loved one.
Dogra, an actor, director, and writer works alone in her Mumbai apartment before a few trusted friends can view a version of the piece. “In my first, Doorway, I tried to work with people and found that it was not economically viable. It’s not fair to ask actors to give me an indefinite time without an opening date. After the second piece, I realised I quite enjoy working alone and juggling roles,” she said. “One of the hardest things is to be honest with yourself. To be your own critic and throw the old material out isn’t emotionally pleasant”.
Dogra follows no convention — her pieces are devised, start on an impulse and not a concept, and follow a trajectory that can impress and provoke in equal measure. There is no script, and she may never write one down, barring censor requirements. “I could start with something which is as subtle or flimsy, as sound, like I did with Notes on Chai. I kept working with sound, and realised chatter is sound, too. With Black Hole, I wanted to explore why a night full of stars moved me,” she explains, adding that the seed for Maas was planted while she was performing Black Hole.
The motive: shame
“I was on stage after six years, and people commented on how my body had changed. If these comments came from relatives, I would have brushed them aside. But these were from other practitioners and none of them were trying to be mean. And yet, it was like a pressing need. They had to say it out loud to rid themselves of it,” she said. “I wanted to explore further, this immediacy of the body, the need to comment on physical transition, on size. The fact that this body is not just mine, but somehow yours, too,” she said.
Maas began as a piece about becoming fat and ageing, where a woman on stage would desperately try to lose weight, physically exhausting herself to a degree where the audience would wish she would stop. But, as Dogra went deeper, it became about bodily shame and went on to include the entire gamut of internalised patriarchy, the fitness and beauty industries, ageing, and menopause.
“A friend of mine is ashamed of his calves. He thinks everyone is looking at his calves,” she said, talking about the conversations that led to crafting the piece. “Shame works only if it is deeply personal. People don’t talk about it, and when they do, they don’t stop. Everyone is managing it, and trying to hide it. You can crush them by just speaking about it. Being an adult is about hiding your shame,” she said.
The method: using the body
World over, one-woman shows have dealt with the lived experiences of women in their bodies and society at large. Notable among them have been Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s A Woman Alone, and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, which have inspired many performative versions. Closer home works like Kalyanee Mulay’s UnSEEN and Deepika Arwind’s No Rest in the Kingdom, have brought to the fore women’s experiences with patriarchy, through devised performances.
Dogra pushes the envelope within the Shakespearean form of soliloquy that enables characters to talk directly to their audience and share their thoughts and worldviews. Here, it is a tool that generates a similarly intimate experience, even though hers is a crafted character that derives its narrative from her body and its flaws.
Dogra’s process, over the years, hasn’t changed much. She is deeply inspired by the experimental methods of Polish theatre maker Jerzy Grotowski and uses an interpretation of it. The method involves actors using their bodies instead of props or sets to tell a story. It places the audience at the centre of a piece, eliminating conventional ‘spectatorship’. It also places emphasis on the power of silence in performance.
Once an idea has taken root, physical work informs her research. This involves reading and conversations with people. In this case, once you are looking for shame, you see it everywhere, she said. “The more I delved into it, the more I discovered that shame is about many things, but not about character. People are not ashamed of being mean. Those who are considered conventionally pretty actually have much more shame than others. The sense of shame is also much deeper in developed countries, and in cities, with educated and working women. It didn’t make sense,” she said.
Dogra used these startling discoveries in her performance. It begins with an educated woman laying bare her thoughts. She’s talking directly to the audience about her struggle with weight gain and ageing. She frequently changes styles, and clothes, while dissecting the flaws of her body.
Over the course of the show, she does this with a host of different characters. There’s a child who encounters shame for the first time and a doctor whose weight gain is discussed widely in the family, among others.
“When education and money are empowering you, how do I take away your power? By expecting you to look a certain way. If you are the CEO of a company, how do I tell you, you are not enough? I do it through something that is very intimate but also subjective,” said Dogra. It’s a journey of self-awareness encased in dramaturgy.
Dogra wanted Maas to defy norms. She gained weight, so there’s “an actual belly when she’s holding it”. She toyed with learning cabaret before settling on elements from the more inclusive form of burlesque. Cabaret requires a certain body type and form, while burlesque is practised by people of all shapes and sizes.
Jyoti Dogra is masterful in her craft and in dealing with a sensitive narrative, which is why Maas may seem like the most hard-hitting, personal piece from her repertoire. She, however, doesn’t think so. “The only thing personal about Maas is that the body on stage is mine. As a maker, I wanted to see how far I could go in objectifying it and inflicting violence on it as an outsider. That makes it impersonal,” she said.
It’s visibly feminist, but Dogra will as easily shrug off the on-your-nose variety of feminism. It feels improvisational and rooted in the impulsive, but you may be off the mark there, too. Everything, Dogra admits, is crafted for dramaturgical effect. In fact, once convinced about the structure of a performance, Dogra only makes minimal changes.
And yet, the two shows of Maas I watched, felt starkly different. The first left an opening-day audience awestruck with silence and hushed laughter. The second was boisterous, and energetic with moments of introspection. Maas leaves you questioning your own beliefs and re-assessing your relationship with your body. How internalised is your shame? Does it have a hold over your life and decisions? Dogra walks the tightrope between the sensual and the grotesque with alarming ease.