Serious Laughter

By New Zealand Listener

It’s now more than a decade since Indian Ink, the company behind The Guru of Chai, burst onto our theatrical scene with Krishnan’s Dairy, a one-man play that not only toured the country to sell-out houses but went on to gather a daisy-chain of awards, including the coveted Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival. In the intervening years, the two founders of the company – Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis – have not been idle, with two further award winners, The Candlestickmaker (2000) and The Pickle King (2002), as well as the disappointing The Dentist’s Chair (2007).

Given this history, and the impact the plays have had nationwide, there can be no doubt the audience for the opening night of The Guru of Chai came charged with anticipation. Would Rajan, star of the show, pull off the amazing feats of ventriloquism demonstrated in Krishnan’s Dairy? Would the “Serious Laugh” – described by Rajan and Lewis as “using laughter to open people up to serious themes” – cast its subtle spell? Would the work be what the writers hoped – “beautiful, funny, sad and true”?

The answer to all these questions is a resounding yes. I lost count of the number of characters Rajan played as he told the story of the Guru’s lifelong involvement with Balna, a young girl abandoned with her sisters on the Bangalore Central Railway Station, but it ranged from Kutisar, the Guru – a poor street seller who has set up his chai-selling stall at the station – to Balna, forced to sing on the same station platform for her living. As the story unfolds, Rajan metamorphoses into, among others, a stern policeman, a Muslim poet, his doomed son, members of the local crime gang, and the Moon! The magic formula, which guaranteed the success of Krishnan’s Dairy, is triumphantly back on display.

The Guru of Chai works on so many levels there are times when the audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Even the actor’s incursions into the auditorium – so often a recipe for disaster – succeed in both involving the spectator and advancing the story. Clever theatrical touches ­illuminate the action at every turn.

But it is the sheer brilliance of Rajan’s performance, and the humanity he brings to every character he creates, that holds this whirlwind of dramatic storytelling together. Rajan’s interaction not just with the audience but with his on-stage musician, David Ward, whose music and personality are an integral part of the evening’s enchantment, is a joy to behold.