India: Drama is everywhere

By Jacob Rajan

Indian Ink Theatre's Jacob Rajan returns to Southern India and is thrilled by his company's historic first.

In India, the real theatre was all around us - a visual and visceral feast.
In India, the real theatre was all around us - a visual and visceral feast.

If ever you're in Thrissur, Kerala, and hungry, flag down a rickshaw and ask the driver to take you to the Bharat Hotel. It's not actually a hotel, that's just what they call restaurants in Southern India, possibly because when you find a good one, you practically live there.

And the Bharat is a good one. We went there breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week.

We went there so often that when we didn't go there our waiter, Mani, would ask us, with concern: "Where were you last night?"

To my shame, Mani's English was much better than my Malayalam, the language of Kerala, my ancestral home.

I was raised in New Zealand. In 44 years here my mother-tongue has withered away and my vowels flattened as much as the next Kiwi guy's.

But I'm proud to say that this visit to India resulted - unbeknownst to me at the time - in a world first. I was to become the first Indian theatre-maker, born outside of India, to perform his work on Indian soil.

On Tuesday, March 18, 2014, Indian Ink Theatre Company made history.

In sweltering 32C heat (possibly more under theatre lights), in the 600-seat, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy Theatre in Thrissur we performed our play, Guru of Chai, to a delighted audience seeing, for the first time, a prodigal son telling them a story. We, in turn, were delighted (and a little bewildered) by them.

When a cellphone goes off in a theatre in New Zealand, you'll see some hapless individual apologetically flapping to turn the offending device off. In India, they answer the thing. They take photos. They walk in and out. They talk. But, at the end, they did something extraordinary.

Indian Ink prepares to perform 'Guru of Chai' at the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy Theatre in Thrissur.

David Ward, our composer, had written a song using an Indian raga and suddenly the audience recognised the rhythm and started swaying in their seats and clapping along. They erupted in the curtain call. We were all draped with ceremonial shawls and blessed by a silver-haired dignitary. It was strange, but wonderful.

Sitting in the audience that night was Professor CS Biju, director of the Centre for Performance Research and Cultural Studies in South Asia, and it is to him we owe the knowledge of the significance of that performance. We met this lovely man, in typical Indian fashion, as we were leaving Thrissur in a taxi bound for the airport. Literally, we met him in the taxi.

He had wanted to meet us after the show but had to dash away and the only other opportunity was as we were pulling away in our cab. So the enterprising gentleman jumped in.

In the hour it took to reach the airport our learned professor introduced himself and his life's work: the study of theatre from the Indian diaspora. Lovely word, diaspora. I wasn't familiar with it until quite recently - a scattered population with a common homeland. Think dandelion.

Indian Ink's Jacob Rajan.
Indian Ink's Jacob Rajan.

Professor Biju's focus had been the scattering of theatre companies - with Indian roots - in the UK and Canada. He had no idea about Indian Ink until we turned up on his doorstep. So, with some authority, he informed us that what we'd done had never been done before. We were the first dandelion spore to float back home.

Why had none of these established theatre companies who had travelled abroad, in Europe and America, ever brought their shows to the Motherland?

You have to understand that theatre in India is rarely paid for by the ticket price.

Certainly, in Kerala, where a lot of the modern theatre arose from the street in the form of political agitation or propaganda, the very idea of a ticket price is seen as an affront. Audiences have been known to protest outside theatres that dared to charge what is perceived as too much (500 rupees, or $10, is too much).

Our own performance was only made possible by funding from Creative NZ and sponsorship by Theatre Connekt, a local group with a bold vision of fostering a new entertainment culture, and aesthetic sensibility of theatre and performance art among the people of Kerala.

Cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and Calcutta have thriving theatre, attracting audiences that will pay a premium for good shows, but this is not a nationwide trend. It's more a reflection of the cosmopolitan nature of these cities and the appetites of a wealthy middle class.

Theatre in India, even in these affluent regions, exists through sponsorship and the occasional, hard-won (and notoriously unreliable) government grant.

Justin Lewis, Jacob and D. Reghoothaman.
Justin Lewis, Jacob and D. Reghoothaman.

Often, it's the artistic directors themselves, as with D Reghoothaman, of Abhinaya Theatre Company, whom we visited in Trivandrum, who are reaching into their own pockets to keep their practice alive.

In an open-sided shack on the outskirts of a village, Abhinaya were rehearsing MacBeth. They shared a meal with us: rice and dhal using the low stage as a table. It was delicious and humbling.

We were so privileged to perform in India, but the real theatre was all around us. A visual and visceral feast. A swirling chaos of joyous spectacle, maddening and deafening crowds, smells to tempt you and turn your stomach, wonder and beauty and heart-wrenching tragedy around every corner. The value of the trip will be in the work to come.

Bharat is a derivation of the Sanskrit word for India. Now, I'd love to see a play that starts with a waiter named Mani welcoming you to the Bharat Hotel.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has same-day connections from Auckland via Hong Kong, to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore. Local carriers connect from there to Kerala.

- NZ Herald

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