When Pune-based theatre director Mohit Takalkar finished reading The White Book by Han Kang during the pandemic, he turned back to the first page and started all over again. “Initially, I had picked up the book because it was short but as I went through it, I was devastated. I cannot pinpoint why or what but I haven’t read a writing about grief and loss that is so unapologetically and unabashedly emotional and poetic,” he says.
As death became an unshakable reality in people’s lives over the past six months, carrying away loved ones and rendering each individual vulnerable, Takalkar and his team began to adapt The White Book into an hour-long online performance on engaging with grief, titled The Colour of Loss. It will open on October 2 and can be watched from anywhere in the world.
“After the world wars or any previous pandemics, art has chosen two different ways to engage with people — one was to comfort and entertain them because they had suffered so much. The other was a parallel track, where you looked at disturbing stories and try to evoke those feelings that people were trying to suppress or look away from,” says Takalkar. “My entire fight in this lockdown was that we need to approach new texts and writers. We have to understand what has changed within us in this pandemic and how we have been affected. We have to ask, ‘How am I perceiving the world, which is so strange and distressing”.
The play, as with the book, revolves around a narrator whose older sister was born premature on a frosty winter morning to their 22-year-old mother and, two hours later, was dead. Though a fragmented storyline, the novel turned into a meditation on the fragility of life and how imagination and memories fill the gaps between the deceased and those who stay on.
“Death is not only external but there are a lot of things that are dying inside us. Sometimes, we have this practicality that everyone dies and we have to move on, but this book deals with what has remained after a death, how life has been shadowed by this constant death and this constant loss,” says Takalkar.
The Colour of Loss glitters with stars. The White Book was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, which the writer had won before for her previous work, The Vegetarian. Takalkar, who has directed the performance, is a multiple winner of the 2016 Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), one of India’s most competitive stage honours, and the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar from the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Among the actors are Mrinmayee Godbole and Manasi Bhawalkar as well as Dipti Mahadev and Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, both of who have played leads in META-winning plays.
Their medium is not the conventional stage but a new form of digital theatre that has gained currency during the lockdown and is yet without a definitive grammar.
Takalkar and his group have explored the technical challenges to convey the emotions of the text over the laptop. “It was very demanding and exhausting but, after some days, we started enjoying ourselves. One of our devices is that, throughout the piece, all the four actors look straight into your eyes. This creates a bond as you don’t feel like looking away from the screen because there are four people staring intently at you,” says the director.
The act of looking is also political, especially as Takalkar has had conversations with people who have told him the lockdown had been a great experience, packed with family time and new skills in the kitchen. Some have said they were bored while others binged on OTT films.
“All the while, I was wondering, ‘Why are they trying to overlook the migrant crisis and the suffering of poor people? What is happening inside them? What are they trying to mask?’ More than ever before, we need to look into ours mirror and understand what is happening. We need to face our grief,” says Takalkar.
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