Theatre Company Nurtures and Preserves Next Generation

By Dionne Christian (NZ Herald)

Vanessa Kumar was too young to see Krishnan’s Dairy in 1997 when it debuted at Bats Theatre; she was just 7, and the theatre company behind it, Indian Ink, newer than she was.

But Kumar grew up seeing interviews, advertisements and reviews about Indian Ink and its plays, which mushroomed from that first short season of the solo show Krishnan’s Dairy into a trilogy and on to four more productions.

Twenty years on, those plays have been seen by about 450,000 people worldwide and performers like Kumar credit Indian Ink, led by Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan, as among the most influential forces on their own careers.

“I grew up seeing Indian Ink theatre company advertisements in newspapers and that was really encouraging for me because I’d never seen anything like that in New Zealand before,” Kumar says. “Although I hadn’t seen one of their shows, there was a recognition factor and there were faces like mine in the newspaper in a good way.”

Rajan met Kumar when she was at Toi Whakaari: the NZ Drama School; she remembers being so nervous that she could hardly speak but came away from the one-hour meeting full of ideas about what she could do.

What she did first was to star in Indian Ink’s seventh play, The Elephant Thief, last year. Since then, Kumar has starred in Silo Theatre’s explosive Boys will be Boys and is now in Indian Ink’s The Pickle King, which is touring to mark the company’s 20th anniversary.

The third of its shows, it debuted in 2002 and highlighted the path Indian Ink would walk: fresh work pivoted around current issues, particularly the social injustices around immigration and the plight of the environment and people at the hands of big business.

Its impetus was the 1984 Bhopal disaster, when poisonous gas leaked into the atmosphere around the Union Carbide plant in central India exposing more than half a million people to a toxic gas cloud. The death toll is estimated at anywhere from 4000-16,000 with thousands more killed because of resulting health problems.

Fifteen years later, those issues remain relevant but Lewis and Rajan have updated the love story – there’s always a love story in Indian Ink productions – that propels The Pickle King. Sasha, blinded as a child because of a chemical accident in India, is the receptionist at the once grand Empire Hotel run by her formidable Aunt Ammachy and staffed by porter Jeena, a cardiothoracic surgeon deceived by Immigration NZ. When a mysterious guest checks in, matters of the heart are brought to the fore.

Lewis and Rajan tweaked the script ever so slightly to centre the love story around a same-sex couple – Jeena was previously Jojo and played by Rajan.

“It’s a testament to how much society has moved on,” says Rajan, noting that 15 years ago the inclusion of a same-sex couple would have dominated discussion about the play. “What I love about it is that we had to do very little to refresh the story in terms of keeping its beauty and subtlety.”

For Rajan, made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit in 2013, theatre is all about telling beautiful stories with an edge. Does he think Indian Ink has changed theatre in NZ?

“I imagine that we have; I didn’t consciously set out to do so but I guess it couldn’t help but be a bit political because I was the first Indian graduate from Toi Whakaari. That was a change because it brought a new voice to the landscape but these days, there are now so many voices and it’s a far richer place to be.

“But the thing about being a pioneer is that you spend a lot of time trying not to starve to death. I was lucky to meet Justin Lewis, who has been my partner in crime. He’s an incredibly savvy businessman who has made our business thrive.”

Actor Andrew Ford, who joins Kumar and Kalyani Nagarajan in The Pickle King , says as a former member of an independent theatre company, knowing what Lewis and Rajan have achieved was encouraging. Ford believes Krishnan’s Dairy, which started as a solo show for a drama school assignment, made it easier to create one-person shows that audiences knew would be good.

“It’s inspirational knowing that as long as you’re producing good work, you can make something different and succeed.”

Ahi Karunaharan is one of the rising stars of local theatre, writing NZ’s first Sri Lankan play and working with a number of companies, Auckland Theatre Company and Prayas among them. He was 17 when he went to see Krishnan’s Dairy and recalls realisation dawning on him that he, too, might be able to make a career out of theatre.

“It brought an Indian experience to the main stage and with it, a bit of magic that my parents’ generation had forgotten. There was nostalgia and magic in being able to share heritage and legacy through watching stories on stage and those stories aren’t just ‘Indian stories’ anymore – they’re New Zealand ones.”