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On the first floor of Prithvi House in Mumbai, a small group of actors and their director are rehearsing for Song of the Swan. Knot Theatre’s maiden production and director Shubhrajyoti Barat’s third venture tells the story of Hans Christian Ostro, a Norwegian theatre artiste, whose passion for the arts had brought him to India. On a visit to Kashmir, he was abducted and killed by militants in 1995.
“I was performing here, at Prithvi, when Ostro happened to come by and watch my show. He came backstage and we got talking,” Barat says, adding that Ostro had spent five months learning Kathakali in Kerala. As actor Avantika Akerkar steps into the role of a mother revisiting her son’s death, the room — despite the gathering — begins to feel deep and hollow. Through a chain of questions, she enters into a mournful contemplation of her son’s fate. “I always wonder, was it destined to be like this? What if he hadn’t gone to India? Or even if he went to India, what if he had come back from Kerala? What if he hadn’t gone to Kashmir?” she says.
The play will be staged at Prithvi Theatre on June 23 and 24. “He wanted to do a play on the Bhagwad Gita, in which Krishna would speak in Kathakali gestures. He told me that he had sold all his possessions to book three nights at a black box theatre in Oslo, the most expensive Norwegian city,” Barat recalls about Ostro. A few days later, Ostro’s name and photographs were across newspapers. Six western tourists, including Ostro, were held hostage by militants. While one managed to escape, Ostro’s remains the only body to have been found, decapitated, near a canal.
Although informed by political context, Song of Swan — written by Asad Hussain and with Suneel Sinha, Santosh Tiwari, Saurabh Nayyar and Akerkar in key roles — is rooted in the personal. It aims to “focus on the idea of collateral damage in a place of strife,” Barat says. Told through the testimonials of fictional and real characters, Song of the Swan is an intimate story that shares the person Ostro was.