A course in cracking the meaning of life

Updated: May 19, 2019, 07:51 IST | Ekta Mohta

To some of life's biggest questions, a sociology professor from a Bandra college, with a team of academicians and a playwright, thinks Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Sartre have the answers. So, he designed a course around it

A course in cracking the meaning of life
Portraits of writers and philosophers at SAPP, a brainchild of Fr Magi Murzello (rector at St Andrew's)

Dr Omkar Bhatkar is running a university of life inside a college. SAPP, full-formed to St Andrew's Centre for Philosophy and Performing Arts, is a two-room box inside Bandra's Riverdale High. One room is the play area, where all the courses take place; the other is the administrative area, covered ceiling-to-floor in posters of all the courses taking place: Ancient Greek Tragedies; Mysticism, Women and Poetry; Theatre of the Absurd; Sacred Voices from the West, and other light material. A bookcase is sardined with paperbacks such as The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura and Ways of Seeing by John Berger. It's a space in which Rodin and his masterpiece would feel at home. At the moment, Bhatkar does.

Dr Omkar Bhatkar. Pics/Shadab Khan
Dr Omkar Bhatkar. Pics/Shadab Khan

In a light-brown angarkha, looking light-years younger than a professor, Bhatkar tells us about SAPP, which he co-founded in 2018. "Coincidentally, you have come exactly one year later. We started the first course on May 14." A sociology professor in St Andrew's mass media department, Bhatkar's doctoral thesis was on spaces. "How spaces are made culturally, rather than geographically. So, people who inhabit a space are able to model it on their understanding of life." In the way that babies look like their parents, SAPP is Bhatkar's baby, and carries in its DNA, the twin strands of philosophy and theatre. As a playwright and director of about 20 plays, Bhatkar says, "Most of my plays are either existential in nature or dealing with morbid and abstract realities of life. While writing these plays, I realised that they are very therapeutic in nature, because they deal with existential crisis. So, for me, philosophy is the soul of performing arts."

Hansi Mehrotra, financial educator
Hansi Mehrotra, financial educator

Existentialism has been a lifelong preoccupation with him. Which is why, he created a month-long course around it (the next batch starts on June 1), by borrowing the wisdom of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Michel Foucault, Milan Kundera, Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. "The course is called Existentialism - and there is a small tag after that - and Beyond, in which we look at novels, dramas and literature through the philosophical lens." Last year, 16 people attended the course, and he says, "The moment you call a course Existentialism and Beyond, you've already created a filter. You will get people who have started questioning something in their life."

Berges Santok, 35, a copywriter who participated last year, says, "For quite some time, I have been battling my own demons. I don't know if that's the start of a midlife crisis, but I just thought the course could help me understand myself. Or, if not that, at least help me find answers." Another participant, Hansi Mehrotra, a financial educator in her mid-40s, echoes this, "I joke to people that I returned to India [from Singapore] because I had a midlife crisis. And I just kind of continued to have it. I'm sharing something I have not shared with my own family, which is basically, I felt very, very low. I did not know what I was doing with my life, to the point where I thought, 'Let me just jump off the building,' just because I was so bored. I felt that lonely and low."

The 16 participants from last year's batch of Existentialism and Beyond
The 16 participants from last year's batch of Existentialism and Beyond

That's when the typewritten pages of Dostoyevsky and Camus came to the rescue. Existentialism and Beyond isn't a book club by another name, and it isn't group therapy. It's a serious attempt at understanding the meaning of life. "The authors give me a sense of affinity that I'm not the only one," says Bhatkar. "When you look at their lives, like Kafka, who had a very, very blue life, you realise that your blue is not that deep at least. You develop an empathy for yourself. It's therapeutic to read these works, and to discover your allies or friends among these writers."

Mehrotra testifies, "This course made me realise that other smart people in the world have already thought about the very questions I'm [grappling with]. Which is, what does it mean to lead a good life? How do you even know if you're happy? Are you supposed to be happy? People much smarter than me had thought about it and written books about it. So, now I just go and read those books and I instantly feel better, as opposed to trying to figure it out by myself."

No one person can carry the weight of so ambitious an undertaking, and Bhatkar has divided responsibilities with other know-alls in the field. Dr Kanchana Mahadevan, former HOD of philosophy at University of Mumbai, covers Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche; Dr Biraj Mehta Rathi, assistant professor at Wilson College, tackles Kafka and Sartre; and playwright Ramu Ramanathan chews on Beckett and Ionesco. Although, none can provide easy answers. Bhatkar says, "The course is not providing solutions, but creating a space for discussion." And, Santok adds, "I wouldn't say it changed my whole perspective, but mentally, intellectually, emotionally, yes, the course did affect me. It makes you think in a different way: about life, about death, about gender, about sexuality. Sartre and another philosopher - I can't remember her name, she was his lady love (Simone de Beauvoir) - worked together academically. From their thinking, I realised that one person's existence is based on another's. I cannot exist alone."

On a subject he has pondered so much about, Bhatkar offers the final word. "When you read these works, you feel something within you settle down. Existential crisis happens because of the 'whys' and 'whats'. Camus says, 'We are all doomed to live.' So, now what? Let's do something. A lot of these writers write in a very poetic way. What is poetry? It is a beautiful pain. As in, it's painful, but at least it's made to sound beautiful. So, then you can live with it. Even Dostoyevsky said only beauty can save the world. So, you have to create your own meanings. Life is nothing else, but a journey of meaning-making, till you go to your grave."

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