Jacob Rajan, creator of Krishnan’s Dairy, throws off the mask 25 years later

Jacob Rajan, creator of Krishnan’s Dairy, throws off the mask 25 years later

By Bess Manson (Stuff)

Krishnan’s Dairy was the ‘golden egg’, says Indian Ink’s Jacob Rajan.

If you had to paint a picture of a storyteller it might look like Jacob Rajan. The yarns are plentiful and stem from a life seen through a curious lens.

There’s the one about his gig as a night porter at a city hotel, his short-lived teaching career. There’s a good laugh at his recollection of honing his

writing skills by penning letters to his now wife. Six hours making a two-page letter sound casual, that’ll do it.

It’s all been grist to the mill for his career as an actor and the author of a clutch of plays.

Although making theatre is not so much a career as a gambling addiction, he says. It’s a financially precarious job before you even think about adding a pandemic into the mix.

“Mass gatherings are what my entire career has been based on,” says Rajan – one half of the incredibly successful Indian Ink Theatre Company. “As author Barbara Kingsolver says, ‘the wolf isn’t at the door, but it’s salivating at the edge of the yard.’ That’s our perpetual condition.”

But survival is in their company’s DNA, he says.

‘The most successful international theatre company you’ve never heard of’

In 25 years Indian Ink has chalked up 11 plays, 65 international tours and audiences north of half a million. Their shows sell out before the ink has even dried on the script.

“We are the most successful international theatre company you’ve never heard of,” says Rajan, with a roar of laughter.

Rajan laughs a lot. And boy oh boy is he a talker. His stories usually take the long route before making their way back to the point. But they’re worth the detour.

This year he and creative partner Justin Lewis are detouring to bring back the show that started it all – Krishnan’s Dairy.

Written and performed by Rajan, he juggles all the roles in the play to tell the story of Gobi and his wife Zina who run a dairy. Told in tandem with the tale of Indian emperor Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, the story of love and prejudice has filled theatres in Aotearoa and around the world since 1997.

There have been 10 more plays since Krishnan’s Dairy, but for the longest time this was the golden child.

“It sold out everywhere it played. It garnered five-star reviews. It set the platform for the whole theatre company,” says Rajan, 56.

Rajan recalls the first time they took the play to India. Another good yarn. Long story short, Indian audiences were pretty interesting, he says.

“In a western theatre if a cell phone goes off you’ll see somebody faffing around trying to shut it off. In India they’ll answer it. And talk.

“There’s a sense of not knowing if you’re getting through to anyone but at the end, my god, the eruption from the audience!”

He had been fearful that Krishnan’s Dairy – the story of an immigrant son and the Taj Mahal – might not exactly be big news in India during their first tour there. But he knew the show was landing well when he saw it in the top slot in a list of the best Indian plays of all time. There’s something in that play that is doing the full arc, he says.

“Here are these people who went away from India to New Zealand and here’s this guy who’s telling the story from there and coming back and telling it in India. It really connected.

“I really am an Indian New Zealander. This is my home, so going back to India I never quite feel that’s where I should be, but there was something deep within me that connected.”

Jacob Rajan walks towards the camera in front of a painted brick wall

Masks have power

The story of the play and Indian Ink goes back to Rajan’s 20-minute graduation monologue at Toi Whakaari, the New Zealand Drama School in 1994. Robin Payne, the school’s director at the time, says that is still the definitive version of the show.

“Krishnan’s Dairy was a defining piece, both for him and for New Zealand theatre… He had the extraordinary nous to fuse the domestic with the mythic,” she says.

She’d first seen Rajan when he was playing the role of Ferdinand in a Taki Rua production of The Tempest. Struck by his “humanity and intelligence”, she sent a note backstage suggesting he audition for a place at the school. Back then 2000 people applied for 16 places. He would become the first Indian graduate.

She remembers him as a funny guy who liked to play the piano. Mostly, though, she remembers his humanity. That humanity is there in every Indian Ink play, she says.

Many of them involve masks. Covering his face opened up a new world for Rajan. Behind the masks he was able to disappear. For someone who was a painfully shy child, this ability to become someone else, someone bigger who played larger in the world, was incredibly seductive to him. Masks, says Rajan, have power.

“When you’re in with an audience, it’s that collective imagination that is bringing it all to life.

“Because it’s Papier-mâché on your face, we have thrown out the fact that this is real, so we are relaxed about that because when I see actors being incredibly truthful there’s still this idea that ‘you’re pretending’.

“The contract is very clear [with masks] and because that contract is clear you can take them further into both absurdity and profound sadness.”

This was in contrast to drama school, where he recalls the laboriousness of method acting.

“[With] method acting you’re a pain in the arse to live with. When you take the mask off there’s no residue. Take it off and it’s gone.”

Rajan had been planning to continue his study of mask under British-born actor and director John Bolton before he was shoulder-tapped for drama school. Bolton, who runs theatre programmes in Melbourne, says Rajan was the best person he’d seen behind a mask.

“He is extraordinarily good – very open and spontaneous and incredibly creative.”

He is an intelligent performer who doesn’t play alone, he says.

“There are a lot of talented people who, when they are on stage with another person, are not very giving. Jacob looks outward at what his partners are doing, and he gets his inspiration from them.”

Exploding into creativity

Rajan was born in Malaysia, the youngest of three boys. His parents, from southern India, moved the family to Aotearoa when he was 4.

They lived first on the grounds of Porirua psychiatric hospital where his father was a psychiatrist. A lot of the psychiatrists were immigrants, he says, and their kids formed little gangs running free along with the patients.

There were tennis and badminton courts, pool tables, a swimming pool. It was like being in a big holiday camp, he says.

“Looking back, yes, there were odd things, like a grown man dressed in a superman outfit walking around the grounds. There was a woman who pushed a toy pram around. Only now I think of the sadness of that, but as a kid you think, ‘well, they’re cool’.”

He started out studying to be a vet. He didn’t get the grades to make it to second year, so he took his science units, switched to microbiology and moved to Otago. The son of Indian immigrant parents, there was some expectation to become a doctor, he says.

“My dad was a doctor. Go back 200 years and there’s always been a doctor in the Rajan line.

“The by-product of that was that I had no idea there was such a thing as an arts degree. I genuinely didn’t know there was a Humanities department at university. I didn’t realise there was this whole other world out there.”

It was only when he went away to Otago to study that he discovered the arts. He went to the theatre, joined the film club. “My little compass started pointing in another direction.”

When he got his c-minus science degree, as he likes to point out, he took a gap year and worked as a postie. This left his afternoons free to gorge himself on the arts.

“I exploded into creativity,” he says with some gusto. “I did my piano exams, I did painting classes. I did drama classes. I was clearly in a creative deprivation tank with my science degree…”

He discovered that he could do all this art and music and drama at Teachers College, which was also, he says, a huge sinkhole for people who didn’t know what they wanted to do. So for two years he played piano, guitar, saxophone. He sculpted and painted. He realised pretty damn quick that he wasn’t cut out for the actual teaching. He liked the kids well enough but hated the paperwork. Mostly he hated the staffroom.

“You go into that staffroom and you see people who have lost the will to live.

“I think teachers by and large are extraordinary – it’s a calling for the really good ones – but for me, I thought, I can’t commit to this at the level that I want to.”

What he loved was acting.

The goose that lays a golden egg

Gobi, played by Jacob Rajan wearing a half-mask, looks up at a bright light representing the moon in the play Krishnan's Dairy. He holds a flowerpot in each hand.

He ended up working at an actor’s agency in Wellington, put himself up for a role in The Tempest (a bit of a doggy move, he’ll admit) and next minute he’s at drama school.

Rajan and Lewis met in a sliding doors moment when Lewis was asked to fill in for the stage manager who fell ill on a show he was acting in.

When they started out they were a noble duo – Rajan did the acting and Lewis did everything else, from making the masks to directing to funding applications. Now there’s a machine that does all that. Rajan is like the goose that lays a golden egg when they need one.

Lewis says Rajan is naturally funny and takes it quite personally when things don’t go right.

“Jacob switches masks to play multiple characters; I recall one time he put the wrong mask. After a few lines he realised what had happened and effortlessly remarked ‘Oh I’m not feeling myself today’ as he put the right mask on. The audience loved it.”

In between plays Rajan, an Arts Laureate, has dabbled in film and TV. His small screen gigs include Shortland Street, Country GP, Outrageous Fortune – usually playing a doctor.

There aren’t enough Indian writers, he says. There’s a lack of authenticity when European writers write a part for an Indian actor, he says.

“They feel they can’t write someone as bad because they think they will be perceived as racist, so they are devoid of character. The light and shade of a person is missing because these writers are fearful of their own reputation.”

The stage is where it’s at for him, he says. He quotes his favourite quote: “TV will make you rich, film will make you famous, theatre will make you good.

“… We take the beach one 300-seat bunker at a time. You only get to experience this ephemeral work if you’re there and there’s something precious about that.

“It does lead to this thing that you will never be that famous and that keeps you grounded.”

His family help on the latter score. He met his wife, Philippa Woods, at Massey University. She was waaaaay out of his league, he says. Those letters he wrote eventually worked, even if it did take 13 years. They have three grown children aged 21, 19 and 17.

He works from a cluttered-looking office in their Ngaio home in the company of the family dog, Gracie. He plays guitar and piano. He loves cooking. Hates fancy schmancy restaurants. He’s a five buck noodle man.

For all his success with Lewis and their company, Rajan says there have been moments of doubt, stress, impecuniousness.

“I remember having writer’s block – some might say a breakdown – when writing Kiss the Fish.

“The cycle of making, rehearsing, touring and having to deliver on it all as well as having a young family finally broke me.”

He doesn’t remember much about that time, just a lot of sobbing. Philippa, who worked in mental health, steadied him. So did Lewis, who he describes as “90 per cent rock”.

“The bright side is I now have a gauge. When things get bad I can say: ‘At least it’s not as bad as my 2013 Fish Crisis.’”

Three and done…?

He never imagined Indian Ink would still be touring Krishnan’s Dairy all these years later. He and Lewis had an idea to do three plays then shake hands and go their separate ways.

“To keep the integrity of the company we would only do our loose trilogy of Krishnan’s Dairy, The Candlestickmaker and The Pickle King,” he says. But they realised they had more in them and so the pair ‘renewed our vows’ and carried on writing and acting.

“The trick has been to touch in every so often to make sure we are not doing it for the sake of it, that we are genuinely juiced by what we are doing, and so far we are.

“We are trying to figure out how to live a good life. That’s the work of the plays, that’s what we are trying to work out as human beings.”

Sounds like there’s plenty more material there for the storyteller.