Mumbai-based theatre practitioner, Vikram Phukan, has had a rather unique association with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Some of his indelible memories are associated with a quote from the book, which stated: “Suddenly the manager’s boy put his insolent head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt—‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead.’” In the early 1990s, ‘Mistah Kurtz He Dead’ used to be the title of an eccentric literary journal, “full of rebellion and wickedness”, edited by his cousin at her school. And in the early years of the internet, when domain names came at a price, Phukan loved typing in random web addresses to see if they had been claimed or not.
One day, on typing mistahkurtzdead.com, a rather morbid web search came up. It showed a photo of a dead man, an image that has remained lodged in Phukan’s consciousness. “It became emblematic of the unwitting rite of passage the internet would engender, and how it would shape the way I saw death,” says Phukan, who has been working out of Guwahati since the pandemic-induced lockdown. “It brought into focus this particular idea of shared community grieving, ways in which people were trying to memorialise a person in the digital realm. In fact sites have now become online shrines.”
Years of deep contemplation of this idea has now resulted in a theatrical performance, Dry Ice, which will look at death and mourning in the age of the internet. It has been supported by the 25 x 25 initiative by the India Foundation for the Arts to commemorate 25 years of the internet in the country. The piece particularly looks at this through the lens of the queer communities. “I feel that the opening up of spaces on the internet mirrors the trajectory of the queer rights movement in India. The web allowed a multitude of voices to emerge, which were hitherto invisibilised,” says Phukan.
From the earliest confidential blogs to the arrival of Facebook in 2005 and now dating apps—the evolution of inclusive spaces for the queer community has been slow. “In a country like India, the gay movement was always under wraps until the reading down of Section 377 by the Supreme Court. Only after that there was more of an open conversation,” he adds. In the 1990s—the pre-Internet era—there was no way of knowing if someone from the community had passed away. “So many young people are still dying in the community due to myriad reasons. But now, there is a shared sense of loss,” he says.
Phukan further elaborates on this in his directorial note: “As strangers connected by shared experiences partake in public mourning as never before, and tributes and RIPs litter timelines, the perfunctory memorialising of Facebook pages has become the defining activity of our times.” Through Dry Ice, he looks at how the nature and very fabric of mourning has changed online: Do attractive people get more commiserations? Does online mourning have a lesser degree of gravitas than the one done in the physical realm? But does this still count as community mourning? Phukan has partially based the performance on true happenings, but pared them down to ensure anonymity to the subjects. “I didn’t want to take a real story as it is as a testimonial. The text is inspired by people I knew, perhaps removed by two degrees of separation,” says Phukan. “I don’t want to sensationalise the idea of a performance around people who might have died.”
On 27 February, he will present excerpts from the text, as part of the IFA’s grantee showcase, which will also highlight how millennials negotiate mental health. “The texts will not be narratives of victimhood or trauma, but seek to excavate resilience and despair in equal measure, drawing out hope and succour from the seemingly morbid,” mentions the director’s note. These excerpts will be performed by an ensemble of five actors—Akash Ghosalkar, Nihir Jain, Pratik Karyakarte, Rushab Kamdar and Sahir Mehta. “The framing of the play is via a radio show. It plays only those songs in which the leading lady dies at the end. Akash Ghosalkar plays the radio host of this Hindi film music programme,” elaborates Phukan.
While the performance will be presented online initially, the ultimate aim of the project is to create a live performance that will be staged regularly for audiences in person. Even though Dry Ice will be streaming online, it has been shot in continuum, staying true to the art of theatre, with no cuts or edits. “This is a performance in which every character is queer. And whatever be their fate in the play, the idea is to put across stories of resilience and agency out there,” Phukan concludes.
Excerpts from Dry Ice will be streamed online on 27 February. Visit the YouTube link at https://bit.ly/DryIce25X25