The remarkable legacy of Krishnan’s Dairy
By: Sam Brooks from The Spinoff
One of the most successful plays in New Zealand history is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Sam Brooks explores the show’s enduring appeal.
This week Jacob Rajan stood on stage, mask securely donned, and sang ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ while carefully placing flowers outside a shop doorway and putting up the front page of The Dominion newspaper. It’s the opening scene in Krishnan’s Dairy, the New Zealand play that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It’s something he’s done hundreds of times, and will do at least a few dozen more while touring the play this year.
When it was first performed last century, The Listener called the play “a groundbreaking work”. “Comic genius,” said The Melbourne Age. “A piece of absolute enchantment,” said The Scotsman.
Those reviews don’t exaggerate. Krishnan’s Dairy is, hands down, the most successful independent show in New Zealand theatre history. It has toured nationally, and internationally, several times to sold-out audiences. It established Rajan’s company, Indian Ink, as a pillar of New Zealand theatre, and has brought thousands of patrons joy, and more than a few tears.
It’s a one-of-a-kind success, with a one-of-a-kind story behind it.
Rajan was born in Malaysia to Indian parents, and says he had no idea that the humanities were even an option at university until fairly late in his high school career. “That’s how blinkered I was,” he says. “I was just always going to do sciences, and I had a very slow dawning that such things existed and that I could participate in them.” (He would later joke that the closest he got to being a doctor was playing one on Shortland Street.)
He went to study science at Otago, but felt the creative bug after graduating, joining Wellington’s amateur dramatic society. Science wasn’t the career for him – he graduated with a C- – and he couldn’t see a road for himself as a performer, so like many actors before and after him, he went to teacher’s college.
Rajan was introduced to mask – the historic theatrical style that defines Krishnan’s Dairy and many of Indian Ink’s subsequent works – through a workshop with clowning legend John Bolton. Putting on “the mask” for the first time was an epiphany. “That shy kid disappeared and these amazing beings came into the world. It was such a freeing and true transformation. There was absolutely no hint of the original person there.”
From there, he was encouraged to audition for Toi Whakaari, where he started to develop his own own taste for “the European physical”, where the words and visuals are equally important. While studying, he also started to notice a divide between the work being made in Auckland and Wellington.
“Everything coming out of Auckland looked fantastic, but there was no content to it. And everything out of Wellington was kind of worthy and brainy, but it didn’t look fantastic. It looked a bit like shit TV, basically.”
He wanted to do something that was visually interesting, but had a real sense of story and something important to say – a show that encompassed everything that makes theatre great. And, well, he did it.
The first time Krishnan’s Dairy saw the world was in his Toi monologue. Toi Whakaari’s monologue programme, which has since morphed into the Toi Whakaari Solos, is a cornerstone of an actor’s training at the national drama school. These solo pieces have often been a stepping stone for graduates into the industry, including the likes of Chris Parker, Hayley Sproull and Patrick Carroll, whose solo was later incorporated into Indian Ink’s show The Elephant Thief.
Rajan wanted to use mask in his self-devised piece, but there was other work that needed to be done first. He researched dairies, talking to five owners in Wellington about their jobs, and came up with the idea of pairing the imagery of the dairy with imagery of the Taj Mahal, based on stories his aunty had told him.
The core of the show as it now exists was formed here. A married couple, Gobi and Zina Krishnan, run a dairy together, juggling the care of their newborn. Gobi wants to make a go of it in New Zealand, Zina wants to go back to India.
Actor Nicola Kawana was part of Rajan’s class at Toi in 1998, and she believes that his performance as Krishnan is one of the finest she’s ever seen – a sentiment echoed by many professional actors who saw that original show. “Krishnan’s Dairy was a standout from its debut,” she says. “The way Jacob interwove story and theatre technique gave it a magical realism, which was literally spellbinding. It changed my experience of being inside a dairy forever.”
After the success of that initial season, Rajan’s tutors told him he needed to turn it into a full-length play. In what he describes as “a blinding piece of luck”, he met director Justin Lewis, who he has worked with on nearly every Indian Ink show since. Lewis had just graduated from the John Bolton Theatre School, “knew something about mask”, and wanted to create original work using the form. “We lived in separate towns, so that wasn’t great, but then it kind of worked out because when we got together, we’d actually spent the money and made an effort to get together.”
During that first season, Rajan’s percussionist friend played drums in the background to a “really generic Indian kind of soundtrack”. For Krishnan’s Dairy proper, he was replaced with Conrad Wedde, now best known as a composer and key member of the band Phoenix Foundation, who was asked to replicate the percussion sound they already had.
He ended up doing much more than that. Rajan remembers working on a script with Lewis and hearing a beautiful guitar melody coming from the corner of the room. “This guy who we’d given the drums to picked up one of my guitars and was just noodling,” says Rajan. He had no idea Wedde, then still a teenager, could play guitar too. “He took all of my three-chord music and created a whole soundtrack, which just elevates Krishnan’s to the stratosphere, because when the mythic element comes in, it’s Conrad’s music.”
The music he composed “just fit the vibe pretty much straight away,” says Wedde. “There ended up being some structured pieces but also bits that were somewhat improvised differently each night.” He estimates he did 200 performances of the show; other musicians who have performed the show with Rajan since include David Ward, who composed the banjo music for Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog, and Adam Ogle, a fixture on the folk music circuit.
Rajan says that moment with Wedde didn’t just take Krishnan’s Dairy to another realm – it was the impetus for what would become a defining feature of Indian Ink as a company, as much as mask was. They don’t make plays. They don’t make musicals. They make Indian Ink shows, and Krishnan’s Dairy laid the blueprint they follow to this day.
The success of Krishnan’s Dairy was immediate and meteoric, which is especially remarkable given that it was an independent theatre venture. The show initially had a two-week season at BATs, Wellington’s home of fringe theatre, in 1997. It sold out, thanks to amazing word of mouth and a miraculous 10-minute slot on Paul Holmes’ primetime current affairs show, and added another week.
Next in the show’s dream run: the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1999. The show got a reviewer on opening night, a real coup in a festival where most shows are lucky to attract a reviewer halfway through their run. Shows in the festival are reliant on reviews, which at the time came as a special supplement in The Scotsman. Krishnan’s Dairy made the front page, with a colour photo, and most importantly, five stars. Within two hours, they’d sold out their four-week season.
By the time they closed, the show had won a Fringe First Award – an award so desired that it might as well be officially titled the Coveted Fringe First Award – and came home knowing they were a hot commodity. On the back of that success, Indian Ink came back and toured the show across New Zealand for years with the gleaming sheen of overseas success.
Nisha Madhan first saw Krishnan’s Dairy when it toured to Auckland’s Maidment Theatre in 2001. She’d told her aunty Anjali about her hopes of becoming an actor, and a week later her aunt took her to see the show.
Madhan, now an award-winning theatremaker, believes aunty Anjali was being strategic. “She knew that I hadn’t quite figured out that I was going to have to reckon with the fact that I was an Indian creative in a white man’s world,” she says. “So she took me to see something that I could see myself in, to show me that there was a way forward for me, even though it felt pretty limited at the time.
“There are lines in Krishnan’s Dairy that my mother said, word for word, when she arrived in Aotearoa. For that alone, I will forever hold it in my heart.”
Rajan was the first Indian graduate from Toi Whakaari’s acting programme, although you would barely need two hands to count those in the nearly three decades since. The floodgates of Indian and South Asian storytelling, especially on our mainstages, haven’t necessarily opened since he graduated, either.
“There’s still a freshness to the voice, even though I’m older now,” he says. Still, he believes Krishnan’s Dairy should ultimately be seen as a love story between a husband and a wife disagreeing on how to raise their child. “They’re both right. It’s not culturally specific, and I resent people who say that the show’s got so many Indian themes. What’s that about?”
Kawana has a similar interpretation of the show and its universality. “There is no better way to reflect on race relations than through story, through the lives of characters we recognise,” she says. “But also it is about love, our capacity for the experience of love in both epic expression and in the minutiae of domesticity.”
The success of Krishnan’s Dairy is surprising not because of the quality of the show, but because it’s not the kind of story we’re told can be successful in this country – it’s about a working class, immigrant, Indian couple. New Zealand’s mainstream theatrical canon is very white, very bourgeois, and overwhelming naturalistic. It could be TV onstage. Krishnan’s Dairy, and its success, stands in quiet defiance of the canon.
The legacy of Krishnan’s Dairy extends beyond the show itself – it also established Indian Ink as a company in its own right. Not only has it aided in the development of countless artists from all kinds of backgrounds, it is one of few companies which consistently tours beyond the larger centres to smaller towns where professional theatre is a rarity. The company has produced 10 shows to date, many of which have toured the world and won awards, including Guru of Chai, Kiss the Fish and The Pickle King.
Madhan got her chance to work with the company, 15 years after first seeing Krishnan’s Dairy with her aunt. She calls Rajan a master of his craft. “Everybody says it, because it’s an undeniable truth! Getting to be onstage with him was a big deal,” she says. “When you meet Jake you meet someone with gravitas, mana, someone who gently commands respect.”
But she also raves about his position as a pillar of the New Zealand theatre industry. Much of Madhan’s work revolves around the realities of living in the body of a woman, an Indian woman, and theatricalising that experience in bracing, exciting ways.
Working in theatre that is centred around identity politics makes for triggering stuff, she says. But Rajan “has always chosen to love and support me, no matter how hard I railed against the trapping of those politics, the complex nature of representation or being on on stages that you were never meant to grace in the first place”.
“Jacob is all dil [heart].”
In 2017, Indian Ink premiered a “sequel” show to Krishnan’s Dairy, Mrs Krishnan’s Party, set many years after the events of Krishnan’s Dairy, in which Zina suddenly has to throw a party for the hundreds of guests her student lodger has invited. Like its forebear, the follow-up has been wildly successful by any measure, touring New Zealand, the US and Canada since its premiere.
That show also renewed interest in Krishnan’s Dairy – audiences want to get both sides of the story. The two shows, paired together at Q Theatre for the rest of June, also show the evolution of Indian Ink as a company. One show says “here’s where we started”, the other says “here’s where we’re going”.
It’s right there on stage, too. Kalyani Nagarajan, who plays Mrs Krishnan in the sequel, once told Rajan that the first time she ever heard her name onstage was in a play of his. Rajan is well aware of the impact his work has had within his community. “Without being a dick about it, there’s this feeling of handing on the baton to another generation.”
Twenty-five years after it premiered, nostalgia runs rife through this latest production of Krishnan’s Dairy. The roles have switched since 1998: Rajan is no longer a young man playing a newly married couple, he’s now older than both of the characters in the show. The show hasn’t aged, but there is an inevitable feeling of looking back.
Rajan points out that even things like dairies have changed since the show’s premier – from payphone cards and branded cigarettes, to vape pens, top-up cards and ciggie packs emblazoned with diseased lungs. The first thing Rajan does in the show is put out The Dominion, and then halfway through he turns it over, and it’s The Evening Post. That’s another thing that’s changed in the quarter century since the show was first staged.
“We had two papers in one day! What was that about?”
Rajan estimates he’s performed the show more than 400 times, and even though they schedule two days to re-rehearse it before getting in front of audiences again, he’s ready to go before lunch on the first day. For context: a good 40 hours of rehearsal time would normally be required before restaging a relatively small-scale show like Krishnan’s Dairy. So, yeah, people really aren’t exaggerating when they say how good he is.
On Thursday’s opening night, Rajan announced to a packed house that it would probably be the last time that he’d perform Krishnan’s Dairy. He wanted to go out on a high. After 400 performances, all around the world, nobody could begrudge him that.
Twenty-five years after its debut, Krishnan’s Dairy is going out on that high. Rajan shifts between characters with a dexterity that is as athletic as it is elegant. He plays the show’s married couple more authentically than two separate actors could. But ultimately, it’s a show that still achieves what he set out to do all those years ago: to make the audience swoon at the visuals, get carried away by the story, to laugh, cry, and at one moment, shriek out loud.
Madhan, one of Jacob’s former collaborators, puts it best: “So long as immigrants arrive and depart, the story will remain constant and true. It’s a simple, heartfelt treasure, written by a person who was falling in love trying to understand what love was through the eyes of immigrant parents.”
“There’s not much more to say. It is lajawab – it leaves you speechless.”