Guru of Chai: An India of Jacob Rajan’s imagination

By Indira Laisram
From New Zealand, Guru of Chai makes its way to the Wollongong stage from February 23-25 at Wollongong Town Hall // Photo supplied

In 2008, when the global financial crisis upended the world, nobody was going to the theatre. For Jacob Rajan, New Zealand-based playwright and actor, it was an opportune time to write a play where he could perform in people’s houses. So, he wrote and produced the Guru of Chai.

“We created this show where we could turn up at people’s houses, clear out all their living room furniture, put up an entire theatre set and then invite all their friends and theatre community to come and see the play,” says Rajan.

This was how the Guru of Chai was launched in Wellington and Oakland—in apartments, villas and mansions. And this was how Rajan crafted his storytelling to adapt to the space he was in, which in a way harkened back to the origins of storytelling.

“It was incredibly intimate. We had dimmable lights, a theatre set that could be expanded or shrunk, everything had to fold up and fit into suitcases. Our designer was fantastic,” says Rajan, who co-founded the Indian Ink Theatre Company in New Zealand with Justin Lewis 25 years ago.

Fifteen years on, the Guru of Chai has travelled to theatres around the world carrying that same essence of intimate storytelling. “That has shaped the way the play has been received,” says Rajan. It would scoop three of the prestigious New Zealand Theatre Awards for Best Play, Best Production, and Best Composer in 2010.

“We were doing something right,” reflects Rajan.

That same year in 2010, the play did an excerpt at the Adelaide’s Performing Arts Market (APAM), a one-stop opportunity for the world’s program-makers to experience the very best in new performing arts from Australia and New Zealand. Unbeknownst to Rajan and his team, David Leiberman, one of America’s influential performing arts agents, was among the audience. Guru of Chai became Leiberman’s first international sign up.

After playing extensively across America, Guru of Chai is catching up in Australia. It has already performed a few times here before, and in India, Singapore and, of course, all around New Zealand.  It’s had a good life, believes Rajan.

Guru of Chai brings to life the buck-toothed chameleon and 17 other characters in this one-man show played by Jacob Rajan // Photo supplied

This Thursday, Guru of Chai opens at the Wollongong Town Hall in New South Wales.

Rajan who takes on the delightful role of the guru as well as 17 characters in Guru of Chai, says the play is based on an Indian fairy tale. It is about a chaiwallah or tea seller at Bangalore Central Station whose life gets entwined with six sisters.

“The guru comes in as one of those dodgy spiritual guides that I see so often in the internet, who are using the guise of eastern philosophy to try and get westerners to pay up to solve all of their problems,” says Rajan, with a laugh.

He calls the guru a delicious character and an unreliable narrator telling the story from his own life while dispensing dubious wisdom to the audience. The audience is led to the heart of the story through puppetry, live music, magic and other tricks “transporting them to a child-like wonder”. “For such a small show, there is layers and layers of magic in there,” says Rajan.

Rajan, whose roots go back to Kerala, says he can’t help being influenced by his background. “You sort of write what you know. My mother is one of six sisters, my parents when they retired went to Bangalore so I am familiar with the train station. So little bits of life and little bits of imagination come together. It’s an India of my imagination.”

He does borrow from western theatrical tradition but meets it with his Indian understanding of being raised in the west. So, while trained in the mask tradition in Italy, he likes to question its relevance to modern audiences. “The wonderful thing about being in New Zealand is you are so far away from everything, so we are not bound by tradition.”

Even the music in Guru of Chai expands on the Indian connection with award-winner Adam Ogle on an acoustic guitar and the tabla as a backing track. In fact, Rajan’s lasting impression of the play’s performance in Kerala was the audience’s resonance to the music where they clapped at the same tempo as the music.

Guru of Chai shadow play // Photo suppplied

As son of professional immigrant parents, Rajan says he was blinkered towards the sciences to be as successful as his parents but clearly realised he wasn’t a good science student “graduating with a C minus” from  Otago University. And it was when he stumbled into theatre while at university that he found himself gravitating towards the arts. Once he graduated, he started exploring everything from painting to music to drama classes. “It was like I had been in a creative deprivation tank,” he says.

To appease his worried parents, Rajan trained to become a primary school teacher at Wellington Teacher’s College. But in the course of that training he met his guru John Baldwin, founder of the John Baldwin Theatre School in Melbourne, who introduced him to the mask tradition. He couldn’t afford to go to Melbourne and ended up at the Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama school, which unfortunately didn’t have the mask component.

In his final year at drama school where he had to create a self-devised project, he decided to use mask in that. He created a little piece called Krishnan’s Dairy, which was his long-running hit prior to Guru of Chai. Krishnan’s Dairy was so well received that when I left drama school my tutors encouraged me to expand. That’s when I met Justin Lewis, my director, who graduated from the John Baldwin Theatre School. We collaborated for a year to extend this 20-minutes piece to the 65 minutes of Krishnan’s Dairy. That was our first play 25 years ago,” says Rajan.

Krishnan’s Dairy travelled to the Edinburgh Festival and was met with rave reviews. It set the template for all their plays to come where masks was core – funny and profoundly sad at the same time. “That became the philosophy of the company. We’ve completed 11 original plays and we’ve toured the world.”

Back to Guru of Chai, it is a comedy that is wrapped up in a serpentine romantic thriller, sums up Rajan. “My preference for writing a play is not to prescribe what the audience should think. I far rather the audience left forgetting where they parked their cars.”

(Guru of Chai makes its way to the Wollongong stage from the 23rd to 25th February at Wollongong Town Hall)

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