Song of the Swan: Hans Christian Ostro’s Life In a Play

The story of the the killing of Norwegian tourist Hans Christian Ostro in Kashmir in the 90s finds new life in a play

3 min read
Hindi Female

Twenty years ago, Hans Christian Ostro, a 28-year-old, Norwegian theatre professional was beheaded by Kashmiri militants. He had come to India to learn Kathakali and write a play based on the Mahabharata, but a holiday in Kashmir put a cruel stop to all that. Actor Shubhrajyoti Barat had briefly met Ostro when the latter had come backstage after one of his plays. That he should see his face in the papers a few days later as a victim of terrorism shook him badly. The incident, he says, stayed with him, and when he opted to turn director by launching Knot Theatre, he decided to tell Hans’ story.

The play, Song of the Swan, unfolds through Hans’ mother’s eyes. She (actress Avantika Akerkar imparts the right touch of stoicism to her role) comes to India to piece together the events that led to her son’s gruesome death. In Kerala, she meets a photographer who tells her about Hans’ passion for Kathakali and entertaining the village children. Here, everybody called him Hamsa, which means a swan. Adding an appropriate flavour to the narration is a chorus of Kathakali dancers wearing white mundus.

The story of the the killing of Norwegian tourist Hans Christian Ostro in Kashmir in the 90s finds new life in a play
Chorus of Kathakali dancers who later play Kashmir locals and militants in Song of the Swan

Cut to Kashmir where the Malayali chorus becomes both, Kashmiri locals and militants, and the mundus become Kashmiri wraps. Here, a tea-stall owner relates how Hans regularly visited his stall for ‘Lipton’ and taught the kids of the village song and dance. Happy-go-lucky, apolitical, why was Hans picked up by a gang of terrorists fighting a war in which he had no role to play?

Or did he? He was perhaps one of the earliest tools of a proxy war that turned a ‘paradise on earth’ into a living hell. A bhaand points out that, now, even laughing causes pain in Kashmir. But when Hans and his friends decided to holiday here, nobody told them that. And, as shown in the play, the state did not make a serious effort to rescue him. A very senior, sincere police officer (actor Harsh Khurana, comfortable in both English and Hindi) is shown in the play negotiating between Hans and his abductors; and when, after several rounds of negotiations, a ransom money of one crore rupees is demanded, he is relieved, sure that such a small amount would be paid. And Hans would be released. Sadly, that doesn’t happen. Why did the state fail him?


A young girl (delightfully depicted by Benaf Dadachanji), in whose house the militants make themselves comfortable, as unwelcome guests, observes that one of them probably saw his first whisker grow in her house. Why was the state unable to counter militants so raw, when militancy was just rearing its head?

The story of the the killing of Norwegian tourist Hans Christian Ostro in Kashmir in the 90s finds new life in a play
Avantika Akerkar plays Hans’ mother to nuanced perfection in Song of the Swan

Hans’ mother recounts how her son witnessed his own death, “They started cutting his throat with a blunt knife… and then left him, partially slit, as they paused to sharpen the knife…” It was a throat meant to sing songs.

Performed on a stark stage with a few ingeniously-used props, Song of the Swan makes you wonder at the futility of it all. Poignantly written by Asad Hussain, it could, however, do with a little trimming and shorter sentences for some of the actors whose voices lack throw.

(Song of the Swan was performed at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai recently)

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Topics:  Kashmir   play   Prithvi Theatre 

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