- Envisioning South Asian Theatre in New Zealand:An Interview with Amit Ohdedar and Jacob Rajan
New Zealand (Aotearoa) offers one of the most famous and geologically active landscapes in the Global South. From the fantastic images of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy to the Christchurch earthquake and the recent White Island volcano eruption, New Zealand is unique in its environmental positioning that vacillates between the idyllic and the devastating. Within this country of about 600 islands lies an emerging intercultural theatre created by the South Asian New Zealander community, a fast-growing minority that constitutes almost 5 percent of the New Zealand population. This emerging theatre notably contrasts with the majority white New Zealander theatre (Pākehā) and the active, Indigenous and Pacific Islander theatres (Māori, Samoan).
Early South Asian New Zealander Theatre companies––including Indian Ink Theatre Company (1996), Those Indian Guys (2002), The Untouchables Collective (2003), and Prayas Theatre (2005)––have explored topics of immigration, assimilation, hybrid identities, and family structures, often utilizing traditional South Asian dance forms, music and storytelling devices. Altogether these theatres have fostered new and experimental works, comedy routines, historical dramas, community performances and classical South Asian theatre productions in English. Artists and scholars of ethnic American theatre may find rich and familiar territory in the work of emerging South Asian theatre-makers in New Zealand, ready connections that auger well for greater global consciousness among the arts and ethnic studies.
I asked two of the leading artists, Amit Ohdedar of Prayas Theatre and Jacob Rajan of Indian Ink Theatre Company, for their perspectives on their intercultural theatre work: our discussions focused on identifying the correct "language" to define their work and on envisioning their theatrical past, present, and future.
An active theatre director and advocate for the presentation of both classical and new South Asian plays in English, Ohdedar was one of the seven founding members of Prayas Theatre in Auckland in 2005. He has since directed seven plays for Prayas, inspired by what he calls a "deep pride in his Indian heritage," one which compels him to create theatre in his adopted home of New Zealand. [End Page E-1]
Odhedar approached his theatrical career as an outsider to institutionalized and Westernized theatre education and training. Working as a refrigeration and air conditioning contracts manager by day, he confesses in his theatre website bio that his true love lies in the engineering of theatrical elements for his audiences, as well as the engineering of a delicious Indian lamb curry. This cheeky, self-effacing style of humor is typical of contemporary Indian New Zealand comedy.
Like Ohdedar, Prayas Theatre has its early roots in nonprofessional, community-based theatre. In the past fifteen years Prayas has established a reputation as an enthusiastic producer of classical South Asian plays and dramatic adaptations of canonical Indian literature, performed by local actors and performers. Through its highly theatrical, multi-art endeavors, Prayas has contributed to the cultivation of traditional forms of music, dance, and puppetry within the Auckland South Asian community. Offerings in youth theatre (such as the Wesley Community Project, 2008) and collaborations with visiting artists (such as hosting "Bauls of Bengals," 2009) have further cemented the theatre's role as a center for community civic engagement. During its early history, Prayas also presented modern South Asian plays. The epic Charandas Chor by Tanvib Hanvir was performed in 2005, 2006, and 2014, in recognition of one of India's most influential modern playwrights.
In recent years Prayas Theatre has embraced a broader South Asian cultural identity and steadily moved toward the performance of new, unpublished works and devised theatre pieces. The First World Problems series (1.0, 2.0, and 3.0) has become an annual tradition of new, locally written plays that explore contemporary social problems and themes. And the ambitious production Swabhoomi: Borrowed Earth (2017) was created from scratch though a process of theatrical devising. Directed by the Sri Lankan New Zealander director Ahi Karunaharan, this large-scale historical drama narrated the entire 150-year history of Indians in New Zealand. As reviewer Rina Patel comments, "by staging a large ensemble contemporary story like Swabhoomi...