The Face Behind the Masks

By Swati Sharma (The Indian Weekender)

Twenty years ago, Jacob Rajan became the first Indian actor to graduate from Toi Whakaari—NZ School of Drama and went on to take his passion for theatre to the next level.

Jacob and Justin Lewis came together to form Indian Ink Theatre Company. From humble beginnings in a rehearsal space in Wellington to showcasing their work to more than 450,000 people worldwide, Indian Ink has now become one of the most successful theatrical export in New Zealand.

The theatre company’s productions have won numerous awards, including two Edinburgh Fringe First Awards and three Production of the Year Awards in New Zealand. To honour their 20-year success, they are on a 10-centre national tour of their most awarded production The Pickle King.

In a conversation with The Indian Weekender, Arts Foundation Laureate Jacob revealed more about the play, his passion, and Indian Ink.

IWK: From Krishnan’s Dairy to The Pickle King, how has the journey been so far for Indian Ink?

Jacob Rajan: It Is hard to believe it has been 20 years. If you were pregnant when you saw Krishnan’s Dairy, your child might now be driving you to see ThePickle King! We’ve been blessed in our success and the way our audience has grown with us over the years both here and internationally.

IWK: Did you always know that you would end up in working in the theatre industry?

JR: Not at all. I am the son of Indian immigrant parents, therefore, I was supposed to be a doctor. It was a long and winding road taking in a BSc in Microbiology, a Diploma of Primary School Teaching, and, finally, a Diploma in Professional Acting.

IWK: How was the story of The Pickle King born?

JR: As a student, I worked as a night porter in a hotel in Wellington; the graveyard shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Hotels are strange, transient places at the best of times, but in those desolate hours, they become an eerie other world. A good place to explore ideas of immigration, love, death, and what’s worth preserving.

IWK: What can the audience look forward to?

JR: A laugh out loud comedy that has the surprising ability to move you when you least expect it. Magical and mad and full of surprises.

IWK: A question that you may have been asked a few times before—why the use of masks?

JR: The masks are utterly compelling in the theatre. They are an amplification of the face, but as a result, they are an amplification of everything: the body, the voice, and, ultimately, the truth. They unleash the audience’s imagination in a way that film and television can’t, and they give actors the ability to transform in an almost magical way.

IWK: Does being an actor help when you flesh out characters for a play as a writer?

JR: Acting and writing are completely different skill sets but it certainly helps when I’ve played around with a character on the rehearsal floor, as an actor, to bring that character’s voice with me as I write.

IWK: What are the challenges faced by an independent theatre group in a small country such as New Zealand?

JR: We are a nation of four million people. To put it in perspective, that’s the size of Melbourne but spread out across the land mass of the United Kingdom. It means we have to tour, and touring is an expensive and grueling exercise. I often say it’s not a career, it’s a chronic gambling condition.

IWK: We can’t ask you to pick a favourite play but if you had to suggest the first play to someone who has never seen an Indian Ink play before, which one would you recommend?

JR: That’s easy. The Pickle King. Our most awarded play and one that contains all the hallmarks of an Indian Ink production—the masks, the laughs, the magic, and the music