Interstellar Dust: Exploring the Cosmos

Jyoti Dogra’s play ‘Black Hole’ explores the human connection to the cosmos, bringing these conversations to an eclectic audience

What comes to mind when the term ‘black hole’ is uttered? Do you imagine a void? A deep nothingness? An expanse? Something completely unfathomable, indescribable? Something ominous? Or is it a crucial part of an existential mystery that defines this millennium?

Perhaps it is no surprise that the idea of a ‘black hole’ in the astronomical context was postulated by a clergyman in 1783. John Michell was an English country parson who believed in the Newtonian idea that light, in the form of ‘particles’, was emitted by stars. Now, we could only see these because they ‘escaped’ the gravitational pull of the stars themselves but what if – and this was a crucial what if – the gravity of these stars exceeded the velocity of light particles? The light would, for all senses and purposes, be pulled back. Light would not escape, and this object would then become invisible. Michell termed these light sucking objects ‘dark stars.’   

Today, we know that light does not necessarily behave in that manner due to Einstein but we do know the name for such an object: An invisible, gaping maw of nothing – A Black Hole.

What do black holes have to do with our everyday, mundane affairs? Of course, I exclude those who don’t ascribe mundanity to their own lives – you are the lucky ones! But for the rest of us, the question still applies. Aren’t things like black holes the subject of arduous scientific musing, of complicated formulae, pondered over coffee cups between the sanctified walls of distant observatories and hallowed institutions of advanced learning?

Not necessarily. Astrology, Astronomy’s cousin consigned to the waste-basket of scientific liberties, captures the minds of many to this date. Stars and planets acquire a meaning beyond their astronomical counterparts, where they take the trouble to interfere and alter our very fates. Black holes, in tandem, may actually be one of the few extrasolar objects to capture our fancy in the way they do today. They make grand appearances in the realm of pop fiction. From Star-Trek to Doctor Who, from Arthur Clarke’s titles to Nolan’s Interstellar – why, the Black Hole even got a movie literally named after it as early as 1979!

This interest of mine led me to discovering Jyoti Dogra’s fantastic performance. I sat within mere metres of this artist who elucidated, whispered, hummed and orchestrated the mysteries of the universe to me in a way that I didn’t think was possible before. This blend of the seemingly ordinary with the distantly extraordinary, of human existential struggle with the unfathomable entities of the cosmos, of two distant ecosystems overlapping in her piece – titled, as you might have guessed by now – ‘Black Hole’ – was nothing short of spellbinding.

Jyoti Dogra performing her play, Black Hole. Image Courtesy Jyoti Dogra

Questions such as ‘when did this strike you’, ‘what made you think about it’ – or perhaps the most cliched – ‘was it autobiographical’ and so on don’t seem to make too much sense here. Jyoti Dogra herself dismisses such queries and rightly so.

“The idea of infusing science within a play isn’t all that new.” she says. “There have been many plays in that regard, but you’ll find that many of them exploring the lives of scientists themselves. The ‘human’ component can thus be easily explored. But how do you make a play about a scientific concept, an equation, an object?”

Dogra professes to have had an ardent love for astronomy, which reflects in the play, but not necessarily in the way you’d think. Black Hole is about Black Holes, yes, but it is so much more.

To provide a simple outline that doesn’t burden you with interpretations, it is this: A daughter’s visit to her terminally ill mother takes on a different turn when the mother decides she no longer wishes to talk about her condition – medicines, doctors, pleasure and pain, her life , their life, past, the future, are all out the window. With nothing left to talk about, the daughter, after days of silence, begins reciting the first law of thermodynamics. The mother is suddenly interested and they have found a new way to bond with each other – Astrophysics. Black Holes. Interpersonal relationships, the appreciation of life itself, the fleeting nature of existence and the silent, yet inevitable approach of death – the final frontier – all get their due in the play.

She recalls, “I had to ask myself, what makes a play? How would a play about Black Holes distinguish itself from, say, a lecture? Something has to be at stake. The context, hence, doesn’t need to be scientific at all. The principle of a Black Hole, then, becomes a metaphor for many things that aren’t necessarily spoken about – but they’re there. That is when all of these things merge – science, existential angst, philosophy and so on.”

For me, the scientific aspects of the play became much more prominent, but only when situated within the context of human interactions, as Dogra did, did they fully bloom. For instance, the feeling that a Black Hole may evoke is that of emptiness and loneliness – but it would make little sense to shove one’s scientific accuracy here to say that black holes are anything but empty – they are one of the densest objects in known space!

Image Courtesy Jyoti Dogra

Quantum entanglement, neutrino bombardment, the laws of thermodynamics and the Black Hole in itself – all of these featured here and incorporated themselves between the margins of science and spirituality. But for many others, the play resonated on different levels.

Dogra reaffirms this. “For some, it was the loss of a loved one that found resonance. For others, it was more of an intellectual curiosity for Black Holes. Yet other people compared the scientific phenomena I was discussing with their own spiritual faith-belief systems and saw stark similarities! And for an artist, that is the most reassuring thing – when their art speaks to each member of the audience on a personal, individualistic level. There shouldn’t be a commonsensical idea, or summary of an artwork anyway.” 

Black Hole was not intended for exclusively urban consumption. Dogra, in fact, made sure that the play was taken to remote climes as well, which became one of the best decisions she’d taken. Much of the play was translated into Hindi, sure, but the depth was not compromised at all.

As I conversed with her, I discovered that Black Holes aren’t alien to the Indian imagination at all. “Masterji has told us about this” says a young student from Chamba tehsil in Himachal. Even adults hum in knowing affirmation when the words are mentioned. While this is not exclusive to Himachal, a lot of their traditions involve the ‘birth-death-rebirth-afterlife’ cycles. To find correlation, all we need to do is posit two questions with similar intonations:

“What happens to matter when it enters a Black Hole?” and “What happens to the self when we die?”

As I sat in understandably ruminative silence after the play, I could see these correlations for myself. One particular thing that struck me was that these exchanges between mother and daughter were undeniably therapeutic for the mother and the daughter. This is similar to the teachings of the Tibetan Bardo, or ‘intermediate state’ as posited in the Bardo Thodol – popularly known as the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the teachings explored in this book are used by monks even today to help those in the intermediate state escape those confines and thereby, liberate themselves from the samsaric cycle of birth and death. After all, the mother’s terminal illness does confer that ‘in-between’ quality to her existence. As the play progressed, I saw that the exploration of astronomical concepts helped both characters understand her existential condition, thereby preparing them both for the final frontier.

In Dogra’s piece, the final frontier is the Singularity. When the mother is told that all that will remain of her body is Helium particles, she wonders whether they might travel to the nearest black hole – and if they do, she would reach the singularity within.

A singularity, discussed within the context of a Black Hole, is a point that lies at the ‘heart’ of a black hole. If you can imagine it, this point has infinite density, zero volume and infinite gravity. Space and time curve. The laws of physics as we know them, cease to apply. In this single point where the beginning and ending of time cannot be determined; this point which escapes geometric considerations and ends all sorts of binaries.

The Big-Bang creation theory, which is often accepted by any layperson with some sort of scientific understanding, also states that it was the ‘initial singularity’ that created the universe.

Image Courtesy Jyoti Dogra

Readers may well be sceptical seeing that this does seem like a pastiche of theories and worldviews, suitably altered for a cohesive narrative. But here again, we must often remember that the scientific paradigm was created to answer basic existential questions that philosophical, mythical and yet other schools of thought sought to answer. It is just that the scientific language and its contemporary supremacy now occupy a large part of our education, when in reality, it should be assimilated in our understanding of our immediate and extraneous ecosystems.

On April 10th, 2019, influenced by the imaging algorithms devised by Katherine Bouman, the first ever image of a supermassive black hole was captured. This is important because Black Holes were a theoretical entity till that point, now validated. To add, it is not even the Black Hole that we have an image of – it’s simply the radiation emitting from it.

While this is interesting in itself, the greater understanding of this phenomenon is that we’ve always believed in this object – despite not ever having seen it with our naked eyes. The same can be said about a lot of distant interstellar objects, which Dogra beautifully articulates: “When we look at the sky, we somehow, metaphorically, instinctively know about the existence of such curiosities. We may not understand them, sure, but we know they’re there. And it is our immersion in these beliefs that provide us with a sense of purpose, of belonging and more importantly, of oneness.”

The same feeling of immersion and oneness characterised the distinctly organic process through which the play was developed. As my own limitations were exposed when asking questions like ‘why this method’ and ‘why these particular devices’ and so on, I realised that the entire play was as organic as the emotions and experiences it was trying to evoke from the audience.

Sure, Dogra is influenced by and does employ Jerzy Grotowski’s ‘Poor Theatre’ for this play. But if you think about it, how else could you show something centred on a concept that was as immaterial as a Black Hole?

The play is characterised by this sense of minimalism. A threadbare stage, no fancy props or costumes, a single white sheet and one emotionally charged solo act. Breathing techniques, the actress’ body, the modulation of sound, the transformation of objects – she incorporates it all. But there are no overarching grand plans or intricate machinations behind every move.

“It began with an idea and then the idea evolved. The objects I started off with were also discarded as I worked with them, familiarising myself with them and eventually – I settled on a white sheet. While there was certainly an element of calculation that comes with experience, there was an equal measure of instinctiveness that is necessary for such a result,” she concurs.

Image Courtesy Jyoti Dogra

While I hadn’t seen her prior performances, the use of sound was something I was immediately drawn to. In the absence of spellbinding images that often accompany astronomical subjects – say, a planetarium experience – the theatre is altogether a different stage. Dogra’s voice modulation from time to time succeeded in turning – in her own words – ‘an equation into a lullaby’, sending the audience into a hypnotic, trance-like state. The theatre, thus, was suddenly transformed into a timeless space – as timeless, as, say, a Black Hole would be.  

The absence of images, though, did have a measure of calculation. “Many people also told me to utilise a dazzling array of visuals to supplement the performance. But then I thought that it would be foolish, because I’m trying to create a highly personal image in the audience’s imagination – using external images would be entirely counterproductive.”

There is a lot that is purely suggestive in the play, much like there is a lot that is left unsaid when we try articulating what it is we feel when we stare at the sky through the naked eye. But why should we look to the cosmos for the resolution of our material concerns? If the cosmos makes us feel insignificant – as the popular trope often goes – why even bother thinking about it? Practically speaking, is there anything to gain from diverting our hard-earned money into things like astronomical research and development? Into capturing the everything of nothing?

There is. If there’s anything Black Hole tells us, it is that the effects of cosmological systems are felt by us – sometimes in a purely materialistic sense, sometimes not. We don’t need inane, marketed spirituality or retrospective mythology, or even a manic scientific temper to appreciate these effects. We don’t even need to pay through our teeth and subscribe to the next lunar travel program.

Perhaps all that is needed is a healthy sense of curiosity that we often forego. Our capacity to marvel at things is often surrendered in the face of practicality. But those two things needn’t be mutually exclusive, as science itself shows us. Perhaps if there were enough of us trying to unlock the secrets our cosmological ecosystems hold; things would be different. Much like the mother in Dogra’s play, we would take one step closer to understanding and accepting the realities that are often so bluntly and abruptly handed to us, and thereby, transcend them?   

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