Theatre Journal 58.3 (2006) 491-495
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During the last fifteen years New Zealand theatre has become increasingly ethnically diverse, first with the burgeoning of M¯aori or bicultural drama and more recently with the emergence of Pacific Island and Asian drama. Where bicultural drama generally features a careful integration of M¯aori performance elements, cultural protocols, and spirituality with Western theatrical models, theatre drawn from other [End Page 491] cultures has been characterized by a looser, more eclectic hybridity. Indian Ink exemplifies this more playful interculturalism. Formed in 1996, Indian Ink has created three shows, constituting a loose trilogy, which are among the most highly acclaimed New Zealand plays of the last decade. The productions have toured extensively within the country and abroad and won numerous awards, including Fringe Firsts for Krishnan's Dairy and The Pickle King at the Edinburgh Festival (1999 and 2003). In 2005 for the first time the three shows were presented together in repertory, with seasons in Auckland and Wellington.
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| Figure 1 |
Jacob Rajan (Mumtaz) in Krishnan's Dairy. Photo: Simon Clark.
Actor and writer Jacob Rajan and director, producer, mask maker, and cowriter Justin Lewis created the trilogy, assisted by dramaturg Murray Edmond. The stories deal variously with Indians in New Zealand and India and a New Zealander in India, but what especially distinguishes the plays are the use of masks and the influence of commedia dell'arte. These presentational theatrical modes foreground the performativity of cultural identity, de-emphasizing the production or representation of a so-called authentic Other. Still, these playful tactics descend from a contemporary European performance tradition. Rajan, Lewis, and Edmond have all been trained in the methods of Jacques Lecoq, whose influence among New Zealand theatre practitioners is long established.
Rajan developed the idea for Indian Ink's first play, Krishnan's Dairy (1997), at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School, where he was also introduced to mask-making. Krishnan's Dairy interweaves two stories and involves four principal characters, each identified by a commedia-style half-mask and all played by Rajan. The central figures are Gobi and Zina Krishnan, new immigrants to New Zealand who have set up a dairy—the equivalent of a corner-shop or drugstore. Notwithstanding the difficulties of adjusting to a new country, Gobi insists on accentuating the positive aspects of life in New Zealand; however, his wife is homesick and resentful. Krishnan's Dairy juxtaposes this scenario of humdrum, mundane struggle with the romantic saga of the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal, for whom Jahan built the Taj Mahal. The play deftly introduces this second narrative strand through Zina's storytelling to her baby son.
Rajan switches among these four characters (Gobi, Zina, Jahan, and Mumtaz Mahal) with marvelous dexterity via a base mask that firmly grips each character mask. Sometimes alternating rapidly between characters as they converse, Rajan routinely swaps Gobi's and Zina's masks while turning on the spot, using the shopkeeper's apron worn around his waist to store the spare mask. He later transforms from Jahan to Mumtaz simply by turning around, as Mumtaz's mask appears on the back of Jahan's turban. The actor's repeated transformations point not only to a familiar trope of postmodern theatre—our fluid identity and constantly shifting subjectivities—the masks and the instantaneous transitions also signal that Rajan, a child of Indian émigrés, is constructing an India from popular images and stereotypes.
This cultural construction becomes more transparent in The Candlestickmaker, where the focus shifts from Indian immigrants in New Zealand to India itself. Commissioned for the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in 2000, the play tells of Sunil, a nineteen-year-old Indian student from New Zealand arriving at the house of his uncle Rohan armed with his Lonely Planet guide. The tourist guidebook serves as...