Guru from New Zealand

NANDINI NAIR | Updated on August 27, 2014

All in one: Jacob Rajan plays 17 characters in The Guru of Chai Photo: Robert Catto

Jacob Rajan on being the weird masked Indian theatre guy who tickles and provokes the audience

Jacob Rajan, born to Malayali parents based in New Zealand, is a founding partner, with Justin Lewis of Auckland-based theatre company, Indian Ink. Founded in 1997, the company is celebrated for its trilogy of plays Krishnan’s Dairy, The Candlestickmaker and The Pickle King. Performing in India for the very first time, playwright and actor Rajan brought The Guru of Chai to the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, held in Thrissur. Known for his clever use of masks from a set of teeth to Balinese masks, his theatre aims to create “serious laughter”. Back in NZ and soon to head for a US tour, he speaks about his love for masks and being a niche within a niche. Extracts from the interview.

What was it like to perform in India for the first time?

I know there was a tide pushing us towards India, but the economics of it never worked out; you don’t work on ticket prices, which is our bread and butter here. It was always going to be a cultural exchange. I rely heavily on my heritage and memories of India as source material for my work. So it was great to come to India and see what had changed.

What are your memories of India, since you were born in Malaysia and moved to NZ as a child?

I have sort of touched base with India about four times in my life, sometimes for three months, sometimes six months. And I mainly stayed with family. Kerala was always this lush green backwater. I always had this lazy, quiet time at my grandmother’s place by the river.

It is interesting that though you haven’t lived here, your Indian identity permeates through your theatre.

My biggest influence is my parents. Till about 12 years ago, they were going back to India every year. It is a fairly strong pull. But NZ is my home, I wouldn’t think of going back to India to live.

The mask has been a constant in your work over the decades. Why are you drawn to it?

Masks are mysterious. That is part of the allure. When you put a mask on, there is an element of possession. Your ego disappears. As a performer it is very seductive — to give yourself to a new being, to lose yourself entirely. I came to acting quite late. I am the son of immigrant parents. I was supposed to be a doctor. So this idea of being an actor was never in my consciousness growing up, and probably rightly so. I was painfully shy as a child, performance for me is way to be someone else for a while.

In a way, masks annul emotions, and acting means emoting, how do those contradictions work?

I disagree with that. My mask teacher would say the more you conceal the more you reveal. And with the mask, because your face is fixed, your eyes and body are thrown into relief. They amplify the emotions, to show the truth of what you are telling. When a mask is truly inhabited, the audience goes on a richer and more profound journey, from real silliness to gut-wrenching tears. The mask allows them to go into that area. With realism, the audience is more guarded, with masks, the audience can be really moved.

Why do you break the fourth wall by interacting with the audience?

We never want to pretend that the audience is not there. Theatre lives in that interaction between actor and audience. In a way the play is just wiring. We plug into the audience to light them up.

What does it mean to be an Indian artist in NZ?

I was the first Indian graduate from The New Zealand Drama School. It is a fairly new voice. I occupy all the niche (Laughs). But I do hesitate to pigeonhole it completely as Indian theatre. The themes are universal, finding love, facing your mortality. If we targeted an Indian audience we would have died a long time ago. What we continue to try to do is to make theatre that is beautiful, funny, sad and true.

Published on March 14, 2014

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