As Fresh, Remarkable and Astonishing as ever

By John Smythe (Theatreview)

My memory of witnessing the wondrous alchemy of Jacob Rajan’s performance in Krishnan’s Dairy 25 years ago at BATS is vivid. That premiere won the Chapman Ttripp Theatre Award for Production of the Year 1977, and the following year it played across the road at Downstage Theatre to more full houses.

It’s touring seasons included 2001, 2009, 2012 and 2013 plus international tours that included Australia, Singapore and Scotland where it won an Edinburgh Fringe First Award. It also won another Production of the Year Award in NZ and probably holds the New Zealand record for the fastest show to be booked out, often before opening night, whenever it is revived.
It was with Krishnan’s Dairy that Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis launched their Indian Ink Theatre Company, with its founding principle of the serious laugh; of “opening mouths with laughter in order to slip something serious in.”

I first reviewed it (for the National Business Review) in November 2001 when it played at Te Papa’s Soundings Theatre, and now it graces that stage again at the end of what may be its farewell tour – but never say never. Given the National Library’s Papers Past site doesn’t include the NBR, I will unashamedly plunder what I wrote back then for this review.
Krishnan’s Dairy weaves pure theatrical magic that is simultaneously exotic and very close to home. The day-to-day tribulations and small joys in the Kiwi corner-dairy lives of Gobi and Zina Krishnan are contrasted at every level with the tale Zina tells baby Abu about the Taj Mahal.

Zina takes the romantic line (proffered in almost every website I found on the topic) that it is a story of undying passion and enduring love. A grieving husband, Shah Jahan, commissions a magnificent memorial to his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died at 39 after bearing him 14 children. It took 20,000 skilled workers 22 years to build.
It is Gobi who tries, in vain, to point out that the Shah, a massively rich Mughal (or Mongol) descended directly from Genghis Khan, was also a vainglorious monster who, among other things, had all the surviving workers blinded and the architect’s hands cut off so no-one else could supersede his monument. (Perhaps that’s why the fabled black marble version, which was supposed to mirror it and become Shah Jahan’s tomb, never made it past the foundation stage.)

The beautiful/ugly, gentle/violent dichotomies inherent in New Zealand life are also traversed in the more modern story. It would be easy to simply bask in the pleasure of Rajan’s sheer artistry in manifesting both Gobi and Zina with lightening-quick changes of masks, physicality and voice, abetted by the impeccably timed live sound effects and evocative music – initially created by Conrad Wedde, later taken on by David Ward and now, in this four-stop 2022 tour, by musician Adam Ogle. The synchronicity of sound and mime is truly astonishing.

The universality and timelessness of the couple’s domestic and working relationships are a constant delight, wondrously counter-pointed in rhythm, style and content by Rajan’s blue-masked Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal.

For many, the prosaic lyricism and exquisite comic timing might be enough. But the play simultaneously undercuts our complacency and increases the value of the work, and our experience of it, by confronting us with a part of our society we cannot deny. The shocking impact of Gobi’s fate forms a riveting bond between the two stories – and between the illusion of theatre and our real lives – as it resonates on domestic and global planes, perhaps even more so now than when it was first written.

The newspaper billboards Gobi initially displays are from The Dominion and Evening Post, taking us back to a time when cash transactions were still the standard and before ram raids superseded armed robbery. The epilogue is about 15 years later and the play’s sequel, Mrs Krishnan’s Party is set two decades or so later.

Krishnan’s Dairy stands as a modern classic of New Zealand theatre. Every generation needs to see it. Although I have seen it at least four times already, this performance feels as fresh, remarkable and astonishing as ever.