Krishnan’s Dairy: Here’s to a national treasure and one of our greatest shows

By Graeme Tuckett (Stuff)

OPINION: One of the greatest New Zealand shows of all-time, take a bow.Actor Jacob Rajan in a half mask behind a see through fabric curtain

I’ve seen Krishnan’s Dairy twice now. The first time was in 1997, at Wellington’s Bats Theatre, in the first week of the first season. And the second time was 25 years later, this past week, at Soundings Theatre in Te Papa, maybe 500 metres away from where Bats still stands.

Krishnan’s Dairy began life as a monologue, written and performed by Toi Whakaari student Jacob Rajan. Born in Malaysia to Indian parents, Rajan wanted to bring an authentic story of migrants to the stage. He talked to dairy owners and workers in his adopted Wellington home – and then wove into the narrative the near-mythic story of 17th century Indian ruler Shah Jahan and wife Mumtaz Mahal – and of how the heartbroken Shah Jahan ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal when Mumtaz died in childbirth.

The genius in Rajan’s writing is that he takes the threads of these two disparate narratives – and weaves them together so that the story of a couple running a dairy in an unnamed city in Aotearoa, becomes a parallel to one of the most awe-inspiring and terrifying love stories ever told.

True love is immortal, Rajan seems to be saying. And a neatly stacked shelf in a shop can be a tribute to the endurance of love, just as surely as a fabled, sprawling, marble mausoleum on the banks of the river Yamuna.

Rajan performs all the roles himself. With three masks, a few props and a physical dexterity that has to be seen to be believed, Rajan transforms himself into Gobi and wife Zina – and then into Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. Rajan clearly delineates between the characters and finds the voices, humanity and humour that define them all. The audience still audibly gasped at some of the transformations, just as we had 25 years before.

Jacob Rajan performing in Indian Ink’s Krishnan’s DairyKrishnan’s Dairy has become a national – and global – phenomenon. It has toured the world, finding audiences who recognise in Gobi and Zina, the people who run family businesses everywhere. Rajan, with co-creator and director Justin Lewis – and his brilliant composers, lighting designers and soundscape builders, has changed the way – a little, maybe – that tens of thousands of people see the world and the ways we interact with the people who live and work around us.

I’m not sure what changes have been made to the script. The moments I remembered from 1997 were all intact. Even in a bigger, more impersonal theatre, the show was just as visceral and moving as ever. And it seemed to me that some of its musings on mortality had taken on even more weight. Or maybe that’s just me, hearing nuances I was oblivious to, a quarter-of-a-century ago.

Rajan says he is retiring Krishnan’s Dairy after this season. If that is true – and you have never seen it, then I am sorry. Rajan and Lewis’s Indian Ink Theatre Company have produced other shows, all of them exceptional. But Krishnan’s Dairy laid down the wero for everything that came after. It is a magical, universal and indelible piece of work.

Bravo Jacob, Justin and everyone who helped to make Krishnan’s Dairy the national treasure that it became. You left us just a bit better than you found us.