By Kimberly M. Jew

New Zealand (Aotearoa) offers one of the most famous and geologically active landscapes in the Global South. From the fantastic images of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy to the Christchurch earthquake and the recent White Island volcano eruption, New Zealand is unique in its environmental positioning that vacillates between the idyllic and the devastating. Within this country of about 600 islands lies an emerging intercultural theatre created by the South Asian New Zealander community, a fast-growing minority that constitutes almost 5 percent of the New Zealand population. This emerging theatre notably contrasts with the majority white New Zealander theatre (Pākehā) and the active, Indigenous and Pacific Islander theatres (Māori, Samoan).

Early South Asian New Zealander Theatre companies––including Indian Ink Theatre Company (1996), Those Indian Guys (2002), The Untouchables Collective (2003), and Prayas Theatre (2005)––have explored topics of immigration, assimilation, hybrid identities, and family structures, often utilizing traditional South Asian dance forms, music and storytelling devices. Altogether these theatres have fostered new and experimental works, comedy routines, historical dramas, community performances and classical South Asian theatre productions in English. Artists and scholars of ethnic American theatre may find rich and familiar territory in the work of emerging South Asian theatre-makers in New Zealand, ready connections that auger well for greater global consciousness among the arts and ethnic studies.

I asked two of the leading artists, Amit Ohdedar of Prayas Theatre and Jacob Rajan of Indian Ink Theatre Company, for their perspectives on their intercultural theatre work: our discussions focused on identifying the correct "language" to define their work and on envisioning their theatrical past, present, and future.

Amit Ohdedar

An active theatre director and advocate for the presentation of both classical and new South Asian plays in English, Ohdedar was one of the seven founding members of Prayas Theatre in Auckland in 2005. He has since directed seven plays for Prayas, inspired by what he calls a "deep pride in his Indian heritage," one which compels him to create theatre in his adopted home of New Zealand. 

Odhedar approached his theatrical career as an outsider to institutionalized and Westernized theatre education and training. Working as a refrigeration and air conditioning contracts manager by day, he confesses in his theatre website bio that his true love lies in the engineering of theatrical elements for his audiences, as well as the engineering of a delicious Indian lamb curry. This cheeky, self-effacing style of humor is typical of contemporary Indian New Zealand comedy.

Like Ohdedar, Prayas Theatre has its early roots in nonprofessional, community-based theatre. In the past fifteen years Prayas has established a reputation as an enthusiastic producer of classical South Asian plays and dramatic adaptations of canonical Indian literature, performed by local actors and performers. Through its highly theatrical, multi-art endeavors, Prayas has contributed to the cultivation of traditional forms of music, dance, and puppetry within the Auckland South Asian community. Offerings in youth theatre (such as the Wesley Community Project, 2008) and collaborations with visiting artists (such as hosting "Bauls of Bengals," 2009) have further cemented the theatre's role as a center for community civic engagement. During its early history, Prayas also presented modern South Asian plays. The epic Charandas Chor by Tanvib Hanvir was performed in 2005, 2006, and 2014, in recognition of one of India's most influential modern playwrights.

In recent years Prayas Theatre has embraced a broader South Asian cultural identity and steadily moved toward the performance of new, unpublished works and devised theatre pieces. The First World Problems series (1.0, 2.0, and 3.0) has become an annual tradition of new, locally written plays that explore contemporary social problems and themes. And the ambitious production Swabhoomi: Borrowed Earth (2017) was created from scratch though a process of theatrical devising. Directed by the Sri Lankan New Zealander director Ahi Karunaharan, this large-scale historical drama narrated the entire 150-year history of Indians in New Zealand. As reviewer Rina Patel comments, "by staging a large ensemble contemporary story like Swabhoomi: Borrowed Earth, the company is fostering its potential to attract a more mainstream New Zealand audience. Clearly the voice of the younger generation is emerging" (The Pantograph Punch, May 29, 2017).

Of note, Prayas Theatre has moved toward working in professional venues; its production of A Fine Balance(2015), based on an adaption of Rohinton Mistry's novel, was co-produced with the prominent Auckland Theatre Company. This collaborative professional and community theatre production is noted for being the first time an entirely South Asian cast was presented on ATC's mainstage (fig. 1).

The work and mission of Prayas Theatre reflects the ever-changing experiences and identities of South Asians in New Zealand. Prayas director Ahi Karunaharan offered this perspective on the future of Prayas Theatre as a force within the New Zealand theatrical community: "There are more urgent, disruptive and urban voices starting to emerge. With the arrival of a new generation of storytellers unafraid of censorship and traditional hang-ups, our artists are open to experimenting with content and form. The future of South Asian Theatre looks provocative and exciting."

Figure 1. Prayas Theatre and Auckland Theatre Company's co-production of A Fine Balance, October 8–18, 2015, the Auckland Performing Arts Centre (TAPAC): Tara Ranchhod, Anisha Bhattacharya, Nona Shedde, Utsav Patel, Amit Ohdedar, Paurus Rege, Rishabh Kapoor, and Sudeepta Vyas (l-r).

KJ:

What language do you use to identify the theatre you produce within your community?

AO:

I prefer using the term "South Asian" or "subcontinent" theatre. We definitely consider ourselves primarily a New Zealand company doing South Asian theatre in Aotearoa. The stories we tell are either from the subcontinent or of South Asians living in New Zealand. The community of artists that we create is largely from the subcontinent and we work in collaboration with local theatre practitioners. The audience that we have is a mix: both local majority European as well as a whole array of other ethnic minorities including many from the South Asian population. Our current mix of audience is about 40 to 45 percent South Asian and 55 to 60 percent other communities.

 

KJ:

Can you talk about your past as a theatre artist working in an emerging intercultural theatre?

AO:

I was born, raised, and spent the first thirty-five years of my life in Calcutta, India, before migrating to New Zealand in 1994 with my wife, eight-year-old son, and three suitcases. We knew no one in the country and as such, actively sought to meet people and form our own community that instinctively was with other migrants. New Zealand back in those days was largely mono-cultural, with a majority Pākehā European–dominated cultural scene. This slowly changed with more skilled migrants arriving in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

We realized that Indian culture was largely viewed by the general population in a myopic vision of Bollywood, Bhangra dance, and butter chicken. This is where we felt the need to tell our stories––through the much deeper and diverse Indian theatre traditions of over thirteen centuries. This was our motivation. Our attempt was to share the rich tradition of Indian theatre with the wider New Zealand society, performing in English to break the language barrier and making it inclusive and celebrating of diversity.

KJ:

So, theatre to combat images of Bollywood?

AO:

Well, we choose plays which reflect social issues through their content rather than direct responses to any specific issue (fig. 2).

KJ:

Can you tell us about your current work and Prayas Theatre?

AO:

We see there is a need for theatre––our ever-growing audience and the energy and passion of talent from various walks of life. They keep coming and joining us as a community. Our plays touch people in many different ways: to our audience it is the newness of knowing an unknown culture, story, and theatre form; to our aspiring South Asian/Indian artists and associates it provides a safe and open platform where they can freely connect with their own culture and the wider society. The collaborative nature of our organization helps us connect with other industry professionals and groups, to constantly upskill and improve the quality of our work.

Our calendar for 2020 was quite full, but the lockdown changed everything––early in the new year we were due to be producing a show in collaboration with other community groups/associations, commemorating the Christchurch tragedy through live music and poetries. In June 2020 we would have done our annual production: a string of four plays in translation from various regions of India, while we finish with a sequel of First World Problem 3.0, a collage of short plays all written and devised by our own writers and artists.

KJ:

Can you speak more about First World Problem 3.0?

AO:

The issues in this series are contemporary. As these are a collage of many short plays, they cover wide-ranging social issues such as racism stereotypes, gender discrimination, patriarchy, and other social taboos.

KJ:

What lies in your future?

AO:

When we started in 2005 there was only one other company––Indian Ink––in the Indian New Zealand theatre scene. Over the years several other groups have emerged. Some work in the vernacular space exclusively for the Hindi-speaking migrants. What we notice is the increasing demand and the appetite for Indian theatre and performing arts. We are constantly invited to volunteer performances at various community festivals such as the Diwali Festival, White Nights, and for the Auckland Arts Festival. Very recently we collaborated with the Auckland Theatre Company to scale up our production of A Fine Balance and bring it to mainstream audiences at the Q Theatre: over three weeks, twenty-five shows, and over 8,750 audience members! That was a big jump and huge experience for our company.

Prayas in Sanskrit roughly translates as "endeavor" or "attempt." Fifteen years ago, our attempt was to share the rich tradition of Indian theatre with the wider New Zealand society. We have sustained and grown to be the largest South Asian community theatre and cultural group and a very familiar name in the Auckland theatre fraternity. Our vision is to build Prayas as a center for practicing various genres of South Asian performing arts . . . extend our reach, include and integrate the next generation . . . give them a voice, a chance to connect with their own minority culture, be aware of their own stories and connect with their roots . . . and thereby integrate more fruitfully with the wider society (fig. 3).

Figure 2. Prayas Theatre's production of Swabhoomi: Borrowed Earth, May 25–June 4, 2017, TAPAC: Shiksha Sridhar, Rishabh Kapoor, Ram Manthry, Lajja Prajapati, Dhruv Mody, and Divya Hariharan (l-r).

 

Jacob Rajan

Born in Malaysia, the Indian New Zealander playwright and actor Jacob Rajan has forged a unique path into the theatre world. Combining his skills in playwriting, performance, and collaboration, he has formulated a unique vision of a dynamic South Asian New Zealand community. In this dramatic universe, one that is supported by a close-knit ensemble of fellow writers, actors, and musicians, stage characters are immersed in strong cultural rhythms of family, nostalgia, tradition, humor, dreams, and loss. A sense of the fluid energy and shifting boundaries that complicate the hybrid South Asian New Zealand identity shapes many of his works.

After graduating from Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School, Rajan founded the Indian Ink Theatre Company with co-writer Justin Lewis. This pioneering professional theatre company was established in 1996 in Auckland, leading the way for other South Asian theatre ventures to emerge. Over the last two decades, Indian Ink has written and produced at least nine original plays, and has toured its work throughout the world, offering university acting workshops along with its performances. The company's original works are often performed in repertory, with popular plays such as Krishnan's Dairy (1997) and Mrs Krishnan's Party (2017) returning for repeat performances over multiple seasons. Of note, Indian Ink has received numerous awards for its playwriting, acting, musical composition, and overall production qualities, including Chapman Tripp and Edinburgh Festival Fringe First awards. Rajan himself has been honored with a Laureate Award (2002) and membership in the New Zealand Order of Merit (2013).

Figure 3. Utsav Patel in Prayas Theatre's production of Swabhoomi: Borrowed Earth, May 25–June 4, 2017, TAPAC.

Most recently, Indian Ink was commissioned by the well-regarded Southcoast Repertory Company to create the play Welcome to the Murder House, a dark theatrical comedy about the invention of the electric chair as told through vaudevillian storytelling techniques, dance, live music, and puppetry. Indian Ink may appear less specific than Prayas Theatre in its artistic focus on the cultural heritage of the local South Asian community. Nevertheless, the dramatic stories that emerge from Indian Ink embody a "way of seeing" that may be interpreted as playfully South Asian New Zealand in spirit. Rajan and Lewis's notion of the "serious laugh" inspires much of this theatre company's theatrical work. While comedy and laughs shape the outer form of their plays, a sense of deep feeling and social consciousness underscores the storylines (fig. 4).

For instance, Krishnan's Dairy explores the love story of a modern Indian couple who have immigrated to New Zealand to run a dairy. Although betrothed to each other by an arranged marriage, their feelings diverge over issues of homesickness. Mrs Krishnan's Party picks up on this same storyline and explores the aftermath of widowhood and the need for the wife, Zina, to start her life anew. In this second play, audience members serve as party guests and interact with the actors-in-character. Indian food is cooked onstage (in part by the audience members themselves) and shared at the end of the performance. The Pickle King (2001), the company's most lauded play, explores the romance between two South Asian women and is performed in commedia style. The Elephant Thief (2015) is a futurist dramatic fantasy in which India is now the most powerful nation in the world; a large puppet elephant is a key visual feature of the play.

While Indian Ink explores what it sees as the universal truths of the human condition through irreverent and cheeky comedic devices, it also explores deeper psychological and social themes that may resonate with South Asian New Zealander audiences eager to see their diverse perspectives onstage. As New Zealand theatre critic Nik Smythe notes of the 2012 production of Krishan's Dairy, "on the surface, it's a small story about simply folk seeking quiet and comfort, yet . . . there's a deeper connection to the universal human condition; the desire for identity and security. The gift of Krishnan's Dairy is the opportunity to look more closely at the familiar hopes and dreams of people we meet everyday" (Theatreview, July 26, 2012).

Figure 4. Kalyani Nagarajan and Justin Rogers (l-r) in Indian Ink Theatre Company's production of Mrs Krishnan's Party, December 6–14, 2017, TAPAC.

 

KJ:

What language do you use to identify the theatre you produce within your community?

JR:

I struggle with the term "Indian New Zealander theatre." It's easy to get seduced by identity as a type of "flavor." For me, it's more about the quality of the ingredients and the care in which they're prepared. The flavor is important––but give me nourishment. Soul nourishment, that's what I go to the theatre for! 

KJ:

Can you talk about your past as a theatre artist working in an emerging intercultural theatre?

JR:

I'm the son of Indian immigrant parents. We arrived in New Zealand in the 1970s, a country of 3 million people and 60 million sheep. We'd traveled 8,000 miles away from our homeland, away from everything that was warm and familiar. That move had to be justified in terms of success. Success, for my parents, was money, and money was not the arts. It's a common belief still held by my community. I became the first Indian to graduate from Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School—a pioneer, just like Mum and Dad. In that way I'm not really drawing on a tradition, I'm making stuff out of what's lying around.

KJ:

What was it like to be the first Indian to graduate from Toi Whakaari?

JR:

Drama school was a tough sell, but by the time I auditioned I'd clocked up a Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology and a primary school teaching diploma, and my folks were resigned to the fact that I wasn't going to be a doctor so they let me pursue my happiness. Toi Whakaari was exactly what I needed. A grounding in the craft of acting and an unleashing of my creativity. My cultural background was celebrated and I was encouraged to give it voice. My first play resulted from a drama school exercise and its success has subsequently become part of Toi Whakaari's folklore. The floodgates haven't exactly opened, but I'd like to think my example has given some of my compatriots hope that there is a pathway forward in this unpredictable industry.

KJ:

Can you talk about your current work with Indian Ink?

JR:

Currently, I'm working on a piece called Paradise Tours––a shonky tour guide tries to con the audience into traveling with him on a life-changing trip to Mumbai. It's very funny, but at its heart it's a play about one of humanity's current deadly flaws: denial.

If I have to define my work, I'm torn between making up some deeply profound (and meaningless) title like "theatre of humanity" or something very specific (and boring) like "narrative theatre." I suppose defining my work isn't that helpful to the making of it, and certainly zoning in on one aspect like my ethnicity is a slippery slope to the ghetto. I'm a theatre-maker from New Zealand. I seek to make work that is beautiful, funny, sad, and true.

KJ:

What lies in your future?

JR:

Theatre remains my first love. My chosen art form relies upon the shared air of the actor and audience in the same space and time. It's in that crackling alternating current that the magic happens. The challenge now is in creating stories that have the power to wrench people away from their devices and demand their attention and connection to others. In a world that seems to be retreating into divisiveness and fear of difference, my hope is that in ten years' time I will still be creating theatre that celebrates our differences but connects us through our shared humanity (fig. 5).

KJ:

Can you talk more about the "crackling alternating current"? 

JR:

A play is just wiring. The imagination of the audience is what we plug into to light the thing up. In our work we love the dance between creating the imaginative reality of the story and playing with the audience within that reality. In Mrs Krishnan's Party (You're Invited), we've made the audience the third character in the play, and there are times when they're the only character onstage serving the story. Imagination and reality blur. We have ourselves a party! (fig. 6).

Figure 5. Justin Rogers and Kalyani Nagarajan (l-r) in Indian Ink Theatre Company's production of Mrs Krishnan's Party, December 6–14, 2017, TAPAC.

 

COVID-19 Update

Prayas Theatre is currently planning to reopen in October 2020 with its production of Yātrā. Indian Ink Theatre is also preparing for an October 2020 reopening with its new play, Paradise, or the Impermanence of Ice Cream. During the pause in theatre production in New Zealand, both theatre collectives continued to collaborate and develop theatrical work. Jude Froude, the general manager of Indian Ink, cites the large crowds at recent rugby games and stadium shows as reason for optimism of the return of theatre audiences this fall.

 

 

 

 

 

Further Reading and Videos on Prayas Theatre and Indian Ink Theatre

Figure 6. Justin Rogers and audience members in Indian Ink Theatre Company's production of Mrs Krishnan's Party, December 6–14, 2017, TAPAC.

An essay on dramaturgical ethics that includes a study of Prayas Theatre Company is Fiona Graham's "The Nomadic Dramaturge: Negotiating Subjectivity, Multicultural Translation, and Dramaturgical Composition," in Ethical Exchanges in Translation, Adaptation and Dramaturgy, ed. Emer O'Toole, Andrea Pelegrí Kristić, and Stuart Young (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Rodopi, 2017), 119–33.

 

A collection of plays by Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis is Indian Ink: Krishnan's Dairy, The Candlestickmaker, The Pickle King (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006).

 

 

 

 

Videos

Prayas Theatre

https://www.foundationnorth.org.nz/stories/people/prayas-theatre/

 

Indian Ink Theatre

https://indianink.co.nz/video/mrs-krishnans-party-onam-immersive-noexpectations/.