A Performance Called Life

by | Jan 14, 2018

As I was packing up and carefully placing the speakers, one of the patients came up to me and extended her hand. With a smile on my face, I extended my hand back. Shaking it vigorously, she said “Didi, aap roz aaoge na? Aap bohot acche hai.”

I replied with a yes. Just then one of the ward attendants told me that, Sakshi* (patient) had spoken for the first time in months. I didn’t know how to comprehend this. Was I actually making progress? Or was it just a reminder of how there was no effective communicative platform for the patients? It had been about 3 weeks since I had begun the dance therapy sessions in the mental hospital that I am working with. Dance therapy is a psychotherapeutic use of movement and dance to support intellectual, emotional, and motor functions of the body. In the sessions that I have designed, there are glimpses of expressive therapy which looks at the correlation between movement and emotion. Music and dance are important stimulants for the human mind because art is merely not for pleasure purposes but they possess a certain utility value.

Initially, when I kick-started these sessions there was curiosity and confusion among the patients. There were many inhibitions also, which needed to be forgone and even I was very skeptical about the effectiveness of these sessions. Also, I didn’t know how to measure progress in this particular setting. But, nevertheless, the sessions began with trial and error. Every day was a new challenge. As the sessions continued, the patients started becoming comfortable and started opening up to me. I am reminded of this one incident when I was conducting the session. It was related to Sahiba*, a patient who had been found wandering on the streets of Nagpur and brought to the hospital. Sahiba would quietly follow my instructions until the day she broke down and narrated her life story to me. The next day when I met Sahiba again, she was in a much chirpier mood than she had ever been. I believe she had experienced something close to catharsis, a strong release.

Obviously, the activities that were incorporated in the sessions were a little out-of-the-box which helped the patients develop a sense of trust with me because they were all considered negative implications of out-of-the-box thinking. Before and after the sessions, there were a few who constantly competed for my attention. It could be even the simple gesture of holding my hand or carrying my speakers. This made me feel very good about myself but later it just struck me that the reason I came across so differently was that I listened or provided a human touch which was very rare for them to come by. Somehow, I cannot help wonder if it happened because of the sessions, or my presence out there or a combination of both. This release or catharsis was a concept devised by Aristotle which means purification or cleansing or any extreme change in emotion through a medium like art that results in renewal and restoration. Even though catharsis is a concept of performance art, it has much relevance in one’s life as well.

Imagine you are on stage, the lights come on and the curtains are lifted. As you look at the audience, you take a deep breath and the first thought that comes to you is that “I have to give a good performance.” Now, what does one mean by a good performance? It means that you have to be in control of your complete self. This could imply that your emotions and actions must be in check with good synchronization between them. Isn’t this what we are required to do in our life as well? Give a good performance?

Every performance is based on a story and every story has a depth. As a performer, it is your duty to do complete justice to the story. The story itself is an embodiment of so many emotions and feelings that it is required for us to express every emotion with utmost sincerity. Isn’t our life a story as well then? Then why is it that we are so careful while expressing our emotions in our everyday life? We are careful because of the social stigma attached to the expression of these emotions. When certain emotions are expressed, they are applauded while the portrayal of some others is ridiculed according to the current social conduct.

According to the Natyashastra, which is an ancient Indian treatise on performing arts, there is an elaborate process of expressing the emotion and it’s only after the process that the performer and the audience reach a point which is cathartic or in performance terminology, the rasa is evoked. There are nine emotional states which are popularly called as the navarasa.

There is always a reason for an emotion, a basic stimulus and the surroundings which act as a catalyst to the emotion. Let us take an example. When the emotion at play is sorrow (shoka), the reason or the determinant could be a loss of loved one, calamity, distress or an accident. The next step is usually the external manifestations and the physical changes in the body due to the determinant. In this case, it could be crying, trembling, parched throat, gasping, perspiration, or any other way of expressing sorrow. Along with the external manifestations, there are certain involuntary reactions like freezing, being in denial, goosebumps or collapsing. We do not realize that delusion, lethargy, suspicions, despair and other such mental states are just accompaniments to a certain emotion. It is the culmination of these steps that lead to the realization of the emotion, in this case, sorrow, to which the reaction of the audience is usually sympathy or empathy (karuna).

Now, the performer also understands that there has to be a balance in emoting these emotions. It cannot be more and it cannot be less, but the right amount otherwise there would be an imbalance. This imbalance wouldn’t appeal to the audience, rather the emotion portrayed would have no effect on the audience at all. Similarly, in life, this imbalance is what makes us maladjusted and this maladjustment is not liked by people around us. This is also one of the reasons for the patients being in this setup. Either they are unable to control their intensity of emotions that are being expressed or they have become numb where they fail to emote anything whatsoever.

Performing on stage is usually a harmonious effort of musicians, vocalists, instrumentalists and finally the actors. Similarly, in life, we must try to create a symphony with the environment, the people involved in our daily lives and our own emotions. I personally believe in bringing about a balance by practicing every emotion openly and facing every situation with the portrayal of the appropriate emotion. This is precisely one of the core aims of the dance therapy sessions. There are so many of them who have forgotten what it is to express an emotion and my sincere attempt is to help them create a balance of their own emotions. I don’t know how much of a difference would I be able to make but the dream of helping each and every one of these patients become a star performer in their life will be kept alive!

Paulo Coelho had once quoted, “If you must cry, cry like a child. You were once a child, and the first thing you learned in life was to cry. Never forget that you are free, and that to show your emotions is not shameful – it’s the fastest to put our hearts at ease.”

Isn’t this one of our basic necessity then? We may call it closure at times or relief another. I really hope all of us become star performers in our stage of life!

*Names changed to protect identity

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1 Comment

  1. shadabarabbani

    Good going Amruta! Hope you see more success with your work.


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