Let’s Play

A serendipitous meeting between Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis has since evolved to become one of New Zealand’s strongest artistic partnerships. Now, the co-founders of Indian Ink are preparing to celebrate the theatre company’s 25-year anniversary.

By Ashley Wallace (style.co.nz)

Indian Ink Theatre Company co-founder Jacob Rajan acknowledges that hanging his hat on a career based on mass gathering is “tough these days”, given that slight curve ball of a pandemic. However, the fact the company has been around for a quarter of a century should tell you that it’s equipped to ride out a storm. “We’ve been so blessed; 25 years is actually quite extraordinary for a theatre company to stay together,” Rajan says, adding that the company’s success is due in no small part to the nous of his co-founder, Justin Lewis. “There’s enormous artistic pressure to keep the quality of the work up, and of course, economic pressure,” says Rajan, “and that’s the genius of Justin Lewis – he has a phenomenal creative visionary head, but he also has a business head and I think that’s what can break you, if you don’t understand that business and the art go hand in glove. If you’re of the mind that the art is this highfalutin thing and that you shouldn’t soil yourself with the money, then you are on a road to collapse, really.”

Together, the pair have created a highly acclaimed series of 10 plays, many of which have starred Rajan and all of which have been directed by Lewis. This year, they will be debuting a new work, the details of which will soon be released. The company is also reviving its very first play, Krishnan’s Dairy, as part of 25th-anniversary celebrations, as well as its sequel, Mrs Krishnan’s Party. For the first time, audiences will have the chance to see the performances back-to-back. “Mrs Krishnan’s Party premiered about four years ago, and you didn’t have to have seen Krishnan’s Dairy, but if you had, you understood a lot of the little references to that earlier work. And of course, people who hadn’t seen Krishnan’s Dairy were going, ‘Any chance of seeing that again?’ explains Rajan. “So we thought for our 25th anniversary, wouldn’t it be great if we put them back-to-back in the same season? So there’s a moment within the middle of the season where you could actually see both on one night.”

Rajan says it’s a unique opportunity to understand the stylistic evolution of Indian Ink. “Mrs Krishnan’s Party is such a rise in terms of audience participation, and Krishnan’s Dairy has the genesis of everything that we love, which is the mask, the story, the live music, and audience engagement on a different level.”

Krishnan’s Dairy started out as a 20-minute self-devised piece created by Rajan while he was at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School. Together, Rajan and Lewis developed it into a full-length play. “We’ve continued to perform it on and off,” says Rajan. “It’s been a sort of golden child for us from the get-go. It has sold out every time we played it; we went to Edinburgh and got a Fringe First award for it and a five-star review. And so it has been a really good foundation stone for the company. And a lot of the DNA of the company is embedded in that work because we got together through a love of mask – there were half-masks used in that play – and [it’s] also a love of story. I think a lot of the theatre that I was seeing at the time was great visually and had great style but lacked content. Nothing was about anything, it just looked great.”

Indian Ink’s emphasis on strong storytelling certainly doesn’t come at the expense of the visuals. The use of masks makes for intriguing viewing, and it was something Rajan recognised was lacking in theatre. “I didn’t see much mask around; mask was relegated to children’s theatre or street theatre – it was a very niche thing. And so when I was at drama school, I was determined to bring it to the main stage with a form of storytelling that was accessible to everybody.”

For Rajan, masks have a certain magic on stage which is hard to replicate elsewhere: “They’re so highly theatrical. They’re not easily captured on film or any other media, you have to see them live. They really engage with the audience. And I think theatre should play to its strengths. Rather than trying to be a weak version of film or television, we should do what we do best, which is engage the audience’s imagination. And that’s what mask does in spades.”

Rajan also credits mask with helping him to come out of his shell. “I was painfully shy as a child and performance was never in my purview. You know, I was the son of Indian immigrants, therefore I was supposed to be a doctor. I did a science degree in microbiology but kind of hated it. I definitely was not a good science student and I was failing constantly. It took me a while to get that degree and it was a C-minus, I think, that I graduated with. So it was only when I started going to theatre or joining the film club that I started aligning with this other path, but still no inclination towards performance because I was really shy. But as soon as I put a mask on, it wasn’t me. It really wasn’t me. I was channelling something and that gave me an enormous freedom.”

Rajan’s heritage has been part of the Indian Ink identity since its formation. “Of course, because I’m Indian, the cultural component was also a kind of invisible voice. At the time, I was the first Indian graduate from Toi Whakaari, so it was a very new perspective.” But he hesitates to call Indian Ink an Indian theatre company. “What we primarily are is good storytellers, but the context often is from this New Zealand-Indian perspective, because between Justin and I, that’s what we embody. So when people say, ‘Your stories have Indian themes’, I bristle a little bit because I don’t know what that is. We have human themes and celebrate difference within our work, but actually, over the 10 plays, you just see how fundamentally similar human beings are – that there’s actually very little that separates us when we get down to our primary wants to live a good life. And I think most of the plays are generally wrestling with that problem. It’s really what Justin and I are working out – how do you live a good life?”

The coming together of Rajan and Lewis to form Indian Ink was serendipitous. Rajan was introduced to mask when he attended a workshop with John Bolton of the eponymous theatre school. “That was the epiphany, and I became determined to do something with mask,” recalls Rajan. “Fast forward about three years, and I graduated from Toi Whakaari with this play using mask, but then the challenge became to find a director that knew something about mask and there [was] no one around.”

Or so he thought. Rajan was then involved in a play where the stage manager became sick, and Lewis was brought in at the 11th hour as an emergency replacement. “We were talking in the bar afterwards and I find out that he’s graduated from the John Bolton Theatre School … it’s an acting school, but he wasn’t that interested in acting. He actually wanted to direct. And it’s essentially a mask school; John teaches with a lot of mask. So this guy just dropped out of the sky who was looking to direct original work, and I had an original piece that I wanted a director to help me extend from 20 minutes into a full-length play. So that was a kind of planetary alignment.”

Rajan is proud of the fact that together, he and Lewis have created works that can continue to be performed due to their timeless themes. “They’re like a good pair of shoes,” he laughs. “They’re not just fashionable, they’ll last because we take two years to put a show together and that’s about making something that’s really intrinsically important to us, that we have something to say, but also that it’s universal and will have that resonance over a long period of time. Hopefully.”

If Rajan had to pick a highlight from the past 25 years, ending up with the impressive oeuvre of Indian Ink plays would have to be it. “They are just like children. You can’t have favourites. They please and disappoint you in different ways!”