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A Mumbaikar comes to grips with climate anxiety through theatre

ByPrayag Arora-Desai
May 08, 2023 04:02 PM IST

The show — meant to serve as a ‘guide to the climate apocalypse’ for citizens of this climate-vulnerable city — starts in the Arctic.

Mumbai: At 8:30pm on May 6, city-based theatre practitioner Meghana AT performed the 21st iteration of her solo show, ‘Plan B/C/D/E’, for an audience of about 30 people at Versova’s Kala Shetra Art Studio. “Loving Mumbai is half my personality, ok?” She quipped about a quarter of the way through the performance, which is rooted in her experience of ‘climate anxiety’ as a Mumbaikar.

A Mumbaikar comes to grips with climate anxiety through theatre
A Mumbaikar comes to grips with climate anxiety through theatre

The show — meant to serve as a ‘guide to the climate apocalypse’ for citizens of this climate-vulnerable city — starts in the Arctic, exploring concepts that many viewers were already familiar with: global warming, melting polar ice, greenhouse gas emissions and rising oceans.

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Meghana then quickly turns the narrative into a hyperlocal one, pulling up a map of Mumbai in 2050, showing several parts of the city, which are projected to be underwater during annual floods. She asks the audience to name their fondest landmarks in the city and proceeds to tell us whether or not they will survive current sea-level rise projections.

“Girgaon Chowpatty? Underwater. Mumbai University in Kalina? Underwater. Sadly, for us theatre-wallahs, even Prithvi Theatre is going to be underwater in less than 30 years! This is ‘ghar vaapsi’, isn’t it? What the city took from the sea, the sea will take back,” Meghana says, pulling up a British-era map of Mumbai from 1660, in which the city’s seven original ‘islands’ are separated by swathes of the ocean.

From this point on, Plan B/C/D/E — which is produced by Meghana’s own theatre company ‘tafreehwale’ -- takes a simple thought experiment and extrapolates it as far as the audience’s imagination will allow: What do we do about this? Should the city be evacuated every monsoon? Will the government build a wall around Mumbai’s shore to keep the waters out? Can we rebuild the city on stilts, or are we better off living on ships in the future? How will Mumbai’s poor be affected by climate change? How many of them will die? Do we even care about them? And, importantly, if Juhu Chowpatty is set to go underwater in 2050, will we still get to enjoy its iconic pav bhaji?

These are just some of the questions that run through the length of Meghana’s 75-minute long, improvisational performance, in which she presents a set of ‘plans’ — largely whimsical and satirical — that she has devised to deal with these scenarios, depending on the trajectory.

There’s a plan for ‘sweeping cuts now’, one for ‘moderate emissions cuts’ and another for complete doomsday. The performance is interactive, and leans heavily on audience participation, of which there was plenty on Saturday night.

“Maybe we can do what they did in that movie Snowpiercer,” one audience member opines, referring to the Korean dystopian thriller film in which the last remnants of civilisation load themselves onto a train that perpetually circumnavigates the globe. Meghana responds: “But our railway tracks are getting flooded every monsoon as it is. How will we do that?”

Speaking to Hindustan Times on the side-lines of her show, Meghana explains, “The show definitely stems from my own sense of hopelessness about ecological devastation. I wanted to convey my own understanding of climate science, which can be a bit of an abstraction for us and get people to engage with it at a local level.”

“For example, when we say that an East Antarctica ice shelf the size of New York City has collapsed into the sea, many people won’t know what that means. How big is NYC? I don’t know either. But, say there is a resident of Dadar in the audience. I can show them that their locality might be underwater in less than 30 years, and that really hits home,” says Meghana.

Meghana emphasizes that the play isn’t meant to be didactic. “It’s not a play about ‘saving the planet’ or solving climate change. My hope is that the performance, regardless of where it ends up, is able to contextualise the climate crisis for the people of Mumbai with respect to their immediate surroundings. If the crowd is extremely anxious, I try to dial things down. But if they seem nonchalant, I try to turn up the heat a little,” she says, pun intended.

BOX: What is ‘climate anxiety’?

Climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety, is distress related to worries about the effects of climate change. It is not a mental illness. Rather, it is anxiety rooted in uncertainty about the future and alerting us to the dangers of a changing climate. Anxiety about the climate is often accompanied by feelings of grief, anger, guilt, and shame, which in turn can affect mood, behavior, and thinking.

Source: Harvard Health Publishing

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