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Storyteller brews blend of ancient and modern India

By: Cameron Woodhead, The Age. 23/8/17

THE GURU OF CHAI ★★★½

Arts Centre Melbourne, until August 27

From New Zealand company Indian Ink comes The Guru of Chai, a one-man show that adapts a classic Indian fairytale to the mad bustle of modernity. Performer Jacob Rajan plays a multitude of characters single-handed, and the evening glides along on the generosity, disarming humour and dramatic flair of his storytelling.

On the streets of Bangalore, a chai-wallah (tea-seller) named Kutisar has his share of gripes – another Starbucks has opened next to his chai stand, for one. With a mischievous, buck-toothed grin, he promises a tale, full of exotic diversion, if not spiritual awakening, that will transport the audience from their meaningless lives.

One day, seven orphaned sisters arrive at his stand. They have no money for chai, but the usually mercenary Kutisar lets them sing for some instead. Soon a large crowd gathers to hear them, and business begins to boom.

Their presence, however, is observed by a feared crime boss who sends stand-over men to shake them out. A lone policeman called Punchkin offers protection, standing guard over the sisters until one by one they marry – all except the youngest, Balna, with whom Punchkin falls in love.

What seems at first blush a stock romance veers into darker and more disturbing terrain, touching on violence, jealousy, inequality and death, yet steeped in the charm and profusion of Indian culture and the resilience of its people.

Inhabiting a motley cast of characters with little more than gesture and voice, Rajan proves an effortless guide.

The elaborate narrative structure and lively digressions, including several musical interludes with an East-West flavour (accompanied by Adam Ogle on acoustic guitar), prove entertaining, and the fabulist blend of ancient and modern India is delivered with an involving sense of pace, a relaxed flow that constantly holds your attention.

If being wrapped up in a good story is your ideal night at the theatre, The Guru of Chai won’t disappoint.

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