Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?
Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles .
In the opening blog of the series, we feature neuroscientist-dramatist-playwright Prabahan Chakraborty, a PhD student at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, who fondly refers to his twin love for science and theatre as ‘the two vices of my life’. In dividing his time between the two, Prabahan says he finds a symbiotic give and take that enriches each of his passions in more ways than one.
Everyone loves a good story. It could be about how brain cells store memories or a comedy about travelling musicians. Told well, stories have the wondrous ability to captivate an audience like nothing else can.
This is the invaluable lesson looking me in the face as I stand at the crossroads of two decades of theatre training and many years of graduate school. Right now, I am getting ready to submit my doctoral thesis and have just published an anthology of short plays – the story-teller in me embracing the scientist in a loving sort of way.
Nurturing the twain
Though I had been acting in plays since I was two and a half, my love for theatre blossomed with my first ‘big’ play at school when I was ten. Around the same time, I was presenting a field-based research project on medicinal properties of indigenous plants – first at a National Children’s Science Congress in 2000, at Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur, West Bengal and the very next year at the Indian Science Congress in New Delhi.
In the decade that followed, my summer vacations were filled with science camps, my weekends with theatre classes under the stalwart of modern Bengali theatre Ramaprasad Banik, and the last few pages of my notebooks with poems, stories and doodles.
My parents made sure I never missed a single tuition class (which I wanted to miss sometimes) or a single theatre rehearsal (which I never wanted to miss). Growing up, therefore, theatre and science coexisted peacefully in my life. Twenty years down the line, I feel incredibly lucky that none elbowed the other out.
Connecting the dots on hindsight, my scientific curiosity around animal behaviour probably has its roots in how I saw characters behave in a play. A sudden crisis-inducing dialogue on stage seemed fascinating. A burst of song and dance that left a smile felt wonderful. Later, I learnt about the amygdala, and how it processes such emotional stimuli – how principles of Hebbian plasticity lead to long term changes that leave a lasting memory of fear. I learnt how amygdala was to be blamed for the anxiety I felt before every stage show and how the friendly hippocampus helped me remember precise cues for dialogues and choreography during a performance.
During the day, I study how stress affects neurobiological processes such as learning, memory and fear. By night, I am de-stressing and recharging myself with theatre. My scientific training, on the other hand, helps me structure each play with logic and reason. The canvas of a stage mirrors in its emptiness an unwritten Power Point slide. A stage looks ‘balanced’ with sets and actors, a slide with graphs and text.
As the twain merged, science instilled in me the belief that nothing is impossible. That helped me step out of my creative comfort zone and challenge myself. This spirit reflected amply in the plays I wrote about ‘nothing’, or a ludicrous black comedy about a man who suddenly finds a newspaper growing out of his nose, or telling one woman’s incredible life story using only two chairs, or even devising a musical on how we are rarely punctual. My scientific training was egging me to dare, to probe into the seemingly improbable ‘what if’.
Feeding back into science
I should accept, however, that I am not beyond the quirks of a usual scientist who tends to start paragraphs with ‘in conclusion’ and thinks of decisions in terms of ‘statistical significance’. Practicing theatre has given me an added feather in the cap – that of communicating science better to an uninitiated audience. Most recently, I attempted it in a play called ‘Triangles and Squares’, a short musical about habitat loss, man-animal conflict and animal cruelty through song and dance. When the audience saw a drunkard killing a puppy with a stone, they shivered. When they saw the animated movements of a lowly peddler caging a common sparrow, they laughed their guts out. But they got affected. When the show got over, they came to discuss all the above ‘ecological’ terms we never stated even once in the play.
At this time, if you ask me whether I can survive without either of my two vices, my answer would be no. Theatre is my therapy for scientific roadblocks, science my caffeine for the ‘little grey cells’.
If you ask me if it is really possible to manage both simultaneously, a question that I get asked very often, my answer would be yes, absolutely. Sure, three hours of intense rehearsal at the end of a whole day of experiments is tiring, but it gives you a creative high and a sense of exhilaration which is irreplaceable. The happiness in designing a novel experiment is as much as writing a new script. The joy of having my research published is as much as a standing ovation at the end of a show.
For me, it all boils down to telling captivating stories that I want everyone to remember. When the curtain falls, that is all that matters.
(Prabahan Chakraborty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )