A Warm And Joyous Memory

By Maulik Thakkar (THEATRE SCENES)

My mother and I attended Mrs Krishnan’s Party during Indian Ink Theatre Company’s September 2018 tour – the first NZ-South Asian production we had experienced together. I remember her commending the impressive production values and the talent of Kalyani Nagarajan and Justin Rogers, who play Mrs Krishnan and James. I found the show to be a wonderful experience to attend with family because my mother had not been introduced to South Asian migrant experiences in New Zealand. I was keen to go along again to see whether the experience would be any different from my first journey with Mrs Krishnan’s Party.

Indian Ink are a much loved Aotearoa-based theatre company that draw inspiration from South Asian lived experiences in Aotearoa. I find that I am beset by the anxiety of wondering whether I am going to enjoy the show with a different companion and a different audience this time round. I think I feel this way because of my scepticism about the consistency of show experiences when the content is rooted in South Asian culture but is being presented to an audience that may not be familiar with this cultural context.

We are welcomed personally into the space by James, wearing the colourful costume of a Ram-Leela character, and my companion leans over to ask, in a whisper, what the attire means. I frown at James, but he smiles warmly and guides the two of us to our seats, complimenting my blue kurta and thanking me for arriving dressed for the occasion. My companion chatters excitedly by the technicolor party decorations hanging off the walls, and asks me whether it was common for shows to have audience members seated at a table in the centre of the room. I explain that the actors will be performing the show around the audience, and will likely be interacting with them. My companion is giddy as James begins by assigning us both the task of handing out garlands and scarves to everyone in the audience. I discover familiar faces in the audience as I hand these out, and I feel grateful to be invited to be part of the welcoming ritual.

Justin Rogers, who plays James, possesses an enviable knack for explaining complex myths like that of Mahabali, the warrior-king celebrated across Southern India in Onam festivities, with superb storytelling skills, with unexpectedly down-to-earth generosity of heart. He invites us to surprise his landlady, Mrs Krishnan (Kalyani Nagarajan), who stumbles into the dairy in the darkness demanding to know what has gone wrong with the electricity. The unexpected guests seem to have thrown a spanner in Mrs Krishnan’s plans for the evening; she sputters her annoyance to James in a series of curt reprimands.

Nagarajan brings all the cantankerous expectations of a South Asian parent to her characterisation of Mrs Krishnan, as we watch her scold, forgive and take command of the room as the central decision-maker. Her artistic range is on display as she invites us to participate in her plan to feed over a hundred guests, since ‘For Onam, no one goes hungry’. Rogers excels at soothing us, telling us all will be well, as he confronts Mrs Krishnan’s regimented prejudices about him and her constant diatribes about how James should be more like her son, Appu.

We are guided through a history of the dairy by the two performers (some of which will be familiar to people who know Indian Ink’s first play, Krishnan’s Dairy), and are briefly introduced to the many vulnerabilities in Mrs Krishnan’s life. This leads me to reconsider and re-evaluate the many trials that my parents’ generation underwent, and the many joys they would have given up to be able to provide an abundance of opportunity for me several years later. Personal resonance strikes me as a crucial component of the experience of this play, particularly for South Asian audience members, who will relate more immediately to the depiction of struggling to breach inhibition.

At its heart, Mrs Krishnan’s Party is about the extent to which we allow our vulnerabilities to surface in our own lives. We are buffeted by the choppy waves of change and frenetic routines seldom allow for us to take a step back and reflect on the pressures and demands that weigh on us. In this process, we have become so used to binding and gagging our vulnerabilities that a night of being surrounded by strangers, a symphony of mistimed guffaws, chuckles and snorts, and dancing to South Asian beats, might just spark the beginnings of fostering the resilience needed to cope with the stresses and anxieties common to everyday life. Setting aside the geographic inconsistencies of sourcing South Asian beats from Punjab and the Hindi heartlands for a show about Southern-centred Onam, the show largely succeeds at celebrating the many new castles yet to come on the shifting sands beneath our feet. It is ordinarily unusual for music to travel such distances within South Asia, where every region and state nurture distinct musical styles in their own languages and dialects.

The effect of the play on my companion and I is a testament to the unique craft of writers Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis, and the open-ended nature of the improvisation of the show’s message for a distinct audience every night. The improvisation centres on conversations between the actors and us, the guests, opening up the floor for various audience members to support a point of view while extending the ‘feel-at-home’ aspect of hospitality. The writers, assisted by dramaturge Murray Edmond, have spun an unconventional tapestry that leaves us with no choice but to indulge our imaginations in the wonder of not knowing what to expect next.

Fiona Nichols’ costume design emphasises the bright colours abound during Onam in Southern South Asia, evoking aspiration for renewal and regeneration. This neatly echoes John Verryt’s set design, drawing from the story of Vishnu’s avatar as Vamana, who vanquished Mahabali by reminding him of the need for humility in the mythology of Onam. The little moments that resonated most include subtle nods to South Asian insistence on hiding one’s feelings when ‘outsiders’ are visiting, like allowing oneself to cry only when chopping onions.

I would have liked to see both Mrs Krishnan’s romantic interest, Arron, and her son, Appu, appear as characters in Mrs Krishnan’s Party – which is something I came away with after last year’s show. I feel that it would have added to the gaps in storytelling that left too much for the imagination – although I imagine that some would prefer to paint what they are like in their own minds. It might be an organic step for the story of the dairy to feature the next generation’s journey to discover how love was incubated in this special place (how about a ‘Dairy trilogy’ from Indian Ink?). Aucklanders are spoiled for choice when it comes to theatre that confronts long-held judgments about how to go about everyday life. Mrs Krishnan’s Party is one of the finest examples of theatre that draws you from your shell, reassuring you that discomfort will not hurt you, leaving you with the warmest sensations of joy as you depart the venue into the night.