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Photo by Robert Catto
Photo by Robert Catto
The Guru of Chai
Jacob Rajan Performer, writer
Justin Lewis Director, writer

at Downstage - return season, Wellington
From 11 Apr 2013 to 24 Apr 2013
[1hr 15mins]

Reviewed by Phoebe Smith, 12 Apr 2013

For a decade and a half, Indian Ink has been creating magical theatre that is very popular, well-received and tightly woven. The Guru of Chai is no exception. Here Rajan and director/co-writer Justin Lewis have incorporated elements of the traditional Indian Folktale of Punchkin into a contemporary tale of crime and intrigue on the streets of Bangalore. 

Rajan and Lewis are master storytellers. The detail of character and location, the conjuring of the sensory experience of Bangalore Central Station, and the anticipation and suspense of the plot are all inherent to the script. 

In the spirit of Krishnan's Dairy, Indian Ink's debut play, The Guru of Chai treats us to a cast of characters all performed by the energetic and mercurial Rajan. This time Rajan eschews masks and plays the entire ensemble wearing a set of buck-teeth and occasionally a transformative scarf. 

Central to the story is Kutisar, a Chai wallah, who opens the play with a direct address to the audience explaining that our lives lack fulfilment, are hollow, but that we are not to fear as all this is being taken in hand.

Kutisar goes on to meet seven orphaned sisters whose singing is so beautiful that their busking earns them more in a day than he makes in a week. While six of the seven are quickly married, one – Balna – makes a choice that sees a chain reaction of events unfold, opening the story up to love and loss, greed and selflessness, devotion and betrayal.  Rajan's embodiment of the seven women has room to be more three-dimensional, particularly in the case of his portrayal of Balna, who unfortunately sounds almost exactly like Zena who many in the audience will have witnessed in Krishnan's Dairy last week. 

While Rajan is certainly hard at work (though he mops his brow in character as Kutisar, it is without doubt that the rivulets of sweat are authentic) he is not alone on stage. Musician David Ward sits in a chair throughout the play. A ‘mute who sings', his presence is commented upon without being overplayed and it is refreshing to be able to consistently see a live musician whose impeccable timing and talent are intrinsic to the success of the piece.   

John Verryt's set is simple and unobtrusive. The basic flats and fabrics allow the action to move location without any lengthy changes and without seeming out of place. The use of shadow toward the end of the play is particularly effective and affecting.  

Opening night at Downstage sees an audience who are utterly charmed by Rajan. They delight in his patter with them and in his fluidity as he performs multiple characters in a detailed and complex story. The lengthy applause and the mutterings of, ‘isn't he good' at the close of the play are testament to this.   

To go and see two shows in two weeks by this esteemed and talented company is a privilege. It is also impossible not to compare them. While the storyline of The Guru of Chai is more complex and riveting than its predecessor, the production is not so slick or perfectly crafted. The delicate technical perfection of Krishnan's Dairy is clumsier here. Both are well worth watching, as, I believe, any Indian Ink show will be. Neither, however, quite live up to the heightened set-up that they endow themselves with. No – I do not suddenly feel a fulfilment that was previously lacking in my life. However, yes – I am glad that I saw this show.  
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