Grief in Six Acts
Six artists confronted grief, using music and dance to enact the five stages that follow loss.
Brought to you in partnership with HDFC Life.
Whether it is the passing away of a loved one, the breaking down of a relationship, losing out on an opportunity or even misplacing something - we are seldom prepared to deal with loss.
We go through a myriad of emotions all at once, turning our world upside down one moment, leaving us drowning in despair the next. Grief, despite its inherent nature of being tumultuous, has a pattern.
The third edition of The Memory Project sought to address the ebb and flow of grief through artistic expression. The Memory Project began as a platform where shared stories of loss provided a support system to deal with grief. It has since become a community for people to remember their loved ones and cope with the finality of loss. And once a year, it brings the community together in a carefully curated event featuring heartfelt performances by artists, where people can draw strength from one another’s experience.
This year’s edition, held at Famous Studios, Mumbai on 29th September, saw six artists bring to life the five stages of grief through music and art.
Soup spoke to the artists performing at The Memory Project, to understand the stories behind their interpretation of loss, personal or otherwise.
Contemporary classical pianist, Sahil Vasudeva kicked off the evening’s performances with an evocative recital essaying Shock. Titled ‘In his Footsteps’ and set against the backdrop of haunting pictures of St Petersburg from Igor Posner’s Past Perfect Continuous, and flickering numbers as a metaphor for life and its transience, his performance conjured up feelings of nostalgia upended by pain.
My piece is a collaboration with a Russian photographer called Igor Posner who grew up in St Petersburg in the early 1990s. So, St Petersburg was once the cornerstone of arts, love, music and passion, and when Igor returned to his birthplace after 14 years, he encountered something that wasn’t so familiar anymore. Everyone has this innate connection with their birthplace and there is a desire to want to return to it, but you return with an expectation. His pictures are an exploration of what he saw when he returned and there’s a haunting sense of dislocation in the pictures. I saw them and asked him if I could build a narrative around them. So my piece is kind of my exploration of his memory.
I’ve titled the piece, In His Footsteps, and it is in two parts. The first looks at memory. I’m not looking at the loss of a person per se, but instead at the loss of a place. There are elements of personal loss, and it is reminiscent of the people in the city who are almost like ghosts. In the second part, I am reacting more to the idea of loss. It’s busy, chaotic, almost a sensory overload, much like shock is.
Aerial Silks artist Dasha Fogel then took the stage with a metaphorical embodiment of the second stage of grief, Denial. Aerial silk is an art form that is a dramatic performance where the artist defies gravity and dances through the air with the aid of a suspended silken fabric. As Dasha spiralled and rose, weaving through light and air, depth and stability, it was only natural to draw a parallel to the workings of grief.
I feel that loss is not just about physically losing someone. We face loss very often—we can lose a partner, a friend, and many other things. You go through similar emotions at a different scale throughout life. For me personally, to deal with things, I tend to distance myself, after which I’m able to get a better perspective and approach it better.
The way I see it, denial is understanding what has happened deep within, but at the same time, not being able to address it and therefore distracting yourself and trying to pretend all is well. Denial comes with ups and downs, and this is what I tried to literally put into my act. There’s a lot of rolling, similar movements, many repetitions, and the whole flow is built this way. Much like how grief works, you keep going back, you keep moving from place to place.
The end of her performance was marked by a sudden descent with her body spiralling to inches above the ground, almost as if she had relinquished all control to move past Denial into the next stage of Grief - Anger.
Set against the backdrop of angry red lights, percussionist Sambit Chatterjee’s piece was explosive. One of India’s most sought after drummers, Sambit who tragically lost both his grandparents within a month of each other, brought his agony into his act. His performance reverberated through the hall in a fast-paced, almost dissonant and violent drum solo - much like anger, which is almost always swift, harsh and potentially destructive.
There are different kinds of losses. The first loss I can recall was when I was three years old and lost a toy car which my dad had bought for me. I was devastated. I knew who stole it and I couldn’t do anything about it. My mum made me understand that it was gone and that its loss was not in my control.
That experience, losing people, falling in love and losing that, having equipment stolen from my car - all these matter as much to me as losing someone. You never get to channel your anger at having lost all this. You cannot assign blame, which also means submitting to the fact that it is perhaps not in our control. And realising that is what I think helps us accept the loss.
The spoken word piece by storyteller Amandeep Singh that followed on the theme of Depression was perhaps the one that resonated most with personal loss. Greeting the audience in five languages Amandeep’s moving story of losing his grandfather at a young age, throws light on the irrevocable regret that one can endure when faced with personal bereavement without closure.
I am sharing a story about the bond I have with my grandfather. He left us when I was in Class 7. In the last two-three months of his life, when he had cancer, he came and stayed with us, and I did not know it at that time. One day when I came home from school, he shouted at me for something I did. That was the last thing he said to me. That evening he lost his voice, and two days later, he died. So I never got the chance to say sorry.
But there are a few things he left me. Once to cheer me up when I was sad, he wrote my name in five different languages. So he gave me that. And now I can communicate in all five languages - Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, English and Bengali and they have become part and parcel of my life since I am a storyteller.
My piece in fact addresses depression and acceptance. The acceptance part in my story is that while I lost my grandfather and took my time to come to terms with it, I cherish what he has left behind for me.
I believe it takes a lot of courage to talk about personal loss. My grandfather used to say, “We all hold our feelings captive inside the body. All we need to do is release them, and set them free, and it is only then that we can truly live.” I have spoken about something very personal and have released it to the audience with the hope that they will hold onto it, and in turn, share something as personal to them as well.
Amandeep then invited members of the audience to share their stories of personal loss. A young woman spoke about the trepidation and anxiety she faced while waiting for news about her fiancé, a defence officer who was in a helicopter crash. A professor spoke about how he refrained from becoming attached to people for fear of losing them. A young woman dressed in her late father's pants shared that she experienced sudden moments where the pain of grief still seemed fresh, even years after his death. The hope was that by releasing their stories to the world, people would come to terms with and reconcile with their loss.
When the center stage was revealed with hundreds of paper cranes suspended from the ceiling for the final act on Acceptance, a palpable sense of calm had taken over the audience. It was only apt that Khaled Ahamed (of Parvaaz) took centre stage armed with naught but a guitar in hand. With a voice that almost makes one want to shut everything else out, his soulful rendition of ‘Eis Bayo’, by the Kashmiri poet Pyare Hatash, was moving.
I had a great connection with my grandfather. He was more than just a grandfather, he was a mentor, a friend. I wish he was alive to see me today. Because I don’t think he knows that I sing.
With respect to my set, I played some old tracks since I thought people would like to hear something familiar. The last song though is special. I had watched this documentary about five years back and saw somebody reciting a poem, and it has stayed with me since. I have made close to ten versions of it. It is in Kashmiri, and is called ‘Eis Bayo’ which means ‘come brother’. Written by a poet called Pyare Hatash, it is about somebody who has lost his home.
It was only fitting that Tipriti Kharbangar and Rudy Wallang of Soulmate ended the night’s acts with an uplifting number with lyrics that went ‘Death is but a Friend’. In their performance both musicians addressed the loss of their beloved siblings with song. Rudy who very recently lost his youngest brother, costume designer Gary Wallang, brought his acceptance of this unexpected tragedy with music that can only be compared to a glimmer of hope.
With this final act, The Memory Project gently guided the audience to come to terms with loss, and find joy and even peace, in remembering their loved ones lost.
Interviewed by Ganga Madappa