Indian Ink’s Jacob Rajan wants to deliver a ‘serious laugh’ at death and immortality - Indian Ink Theatre Company

Indian Ink’s Jacob Rajan wants to deliver a ‘serious laugh’ at death and immortality

Gerry the vulture puppet and actor Jacob Rajan in a pink shirt looking scaredBy: Shawn Hoo 

Indian Ink Theatre Company’s new play was born in Singapore – at least, its title was. New Zealander playwright and actor Jacob Rajan was on a stopover in Singapore in 2019 when he encountered a travel agent signboard which read Paradise Tours.

He then had the idea to create an immersive show about a tour guide for paradise, although the Covid-19 pandemic quickly made interactive theatre a dangerous proposition.

“It was very much a wake-up call for us. You know, we have a career in mass gathering,” he says with a laugh. “So, we turned the play into a man alone. This guy is very much isolated, and he’s aware there are some people in the darkness and he can’t interact with them. It was very much informed by the pandemic.”

Paradise Or The Impermanence Of Ice Cream was the result. Written by and starring Rajan, it runs at the KC Arts Centre from May 16 to 26. It is the last of Singapore Theatre Company’s (STC, formerly Singapore Repertory Theatre) triple bill of one-person plays.

Rajan jokes wryly that, at the age of 58, he is dead centre of “sniper alley”. One wrong move and he could find himself taken out by a stray bullet called death.

“There are friends being popped off on either side of you. I’ve lost loved ones and am at the stage of life where mortality is very much not so far ahead and ever present,” says the co-founder of Indian Ink ahead of the Singapore debut of his show, which reckons with the transience of life.

“We’re the only species who knows we’re going to die,” says Rajan, citing cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s The Denial Of Death (1973) – the book which inspired him to pen the story of Kutisar, who tries to avoid death by reliving his past.

He adds: “That sort of unpalatable truth causes us to do wonderful and terrible things, hanging on to these immortality projects – these things that are going to keep you living forever, like having children or acquiring wealth.”

Everything – from the arts to politics – can be seen as an immortality project, pursued to soothe one’s death anxiety in the hope that one can live beyond one’s biological lifespan. It is not lost on Rajan that theatre, too, is his immortality project.

If all this strikes a morbid chord, the Malaysia-born theatremaker is quick to assure that the show – much like its whimsical title – is true to Indian Ink’s philosophy of delivering a “serious laugh”. “We open the audience’s mouth with laughter in order to slip something serious in.”

The second half of the play’s title – The Impermanence Of Ice Cream – Rajan says, “speaks of this fleeting moment we have to enjoy before it all melts away”.

Puppeteer Jon Coddington with Gerry the Vulture puppet facing Actor Jacob Rajan in a pink shirt

On stage with him is a life-size vulture puppet – designed and operated by puppeteer Jon Coddington – but Rajan says with a tongue-in-cheek laugh: “As an actor, I kind of resent it. When it’s onstage, nobody is looking at me.”

But beholding the majesty of the vulture is also an integral part of the story.

On a trip to Mumbai, Rajan went sightseeing with a driver who took him to Malabar Hill and pointed out the Tower of Silence – where the minority Parsi community continues a Zoroastrian funeral tradition of disposing its corpses where they can be devoured by vultures.

In recent decades, vultures have been dying in large numbers across the Indian subcontinent – threatening a way of life and religious rites around the afterlife.

“Nobody cares,” says Rajan, who until then had not heard of this “mass extinction” event. “The birds are ugly. They are not pandas or polar bears, they are not poster boys for conservation. Yet, the role they play in the environment is so utterly vital.

“They are much maligned birds and I was unfortunately in the club that thought they were ugly.

“Now, I love those birds. For me, I think vultures are the most beautiful things.”

Actor Jacob Rajan reaches for the sky with an expression of joy on his face. The background is black with colorful large light spots that are blue, orange, and red. Jacob is in a velvety red blouse with a green undershirt.

Rajan can now rattle off a list of facts about vultures, such as that they do not spread diseases and can facilitate the elimination of diseases like rabies.

The vulture – often regarded as a harbinger of evil or death – lands on one of Rajan’s characters in the show. He even wakes up in a room with a vulture and freaks out.

“But it grows to become, I guess, a love story. The guy has to embrace death, which means embracing the vulture – so that’s the journey and it’s a wild ride to get him there.”

Rajan, who has performed in Singapore multiple times before the pandemic, is looking forward to returning to eat fish head curry, mee goreng and pepper crab. He says of his usual routine in the country: “I eat everything I can. I’m going to have to tone that down because I just had a look at the schedule. I’ve got double shows back to back on the weekend. I don’t have time for the noodles.”