As a confirmed Indophile, I get a lot of people expecting
me to like just about any form of curry-flavoured cultural production.
And the thing is, they're usually right. So I couldn't believe my
bad luck to have missed Jacob Rajan's Krishnan's Dairy at
Bats in Wellington last year. And then, I couldn't believe my good
luck when I discovered that the same play had been rescheduled at
the Downstage in 1998 and just happened to coincide with my mandatory
trip to Te Papa, (the Mecca of the museum industry, or should I
say, the sacred cow that it's compulsory to roast).
As soon as I got to Wellington it became pretty apparent that Krishnan's
Dairy was the current theatrical toast of the town, with colourful
posters plastered everywhere, and a uniform understanding amongst
people, whether or not they had actually been to the play, that
it was "really good."
The Downstage itself looked great. The delicious smell of simmering
cardamom pods filled the air, while someone (one Alice Cuttance,
according to the programme) had gone to an awful lot of trouble
with colourful can-label trappings in the foyer. This kind of attention
to detail had me geared up for an intense Indo-Pop experience. Alas,
would that Ms. Cuttance had had a hand in the set design. There
was an impressive bank of sari drops which, Rajan blushingly confessed
to the audience in a theatrical afterword, had been ransacked from
his mother's subsequently skeletal wardrobe. These bold blankets
of colour would have made a striking enough setting of their own,
but were unfortunately marred by a counter covered in the dreaded
"scumble" technique which seems to be a props industry standard
for misguided energy. And when Jacob Rajan strode on stage in his
kurta with an acoustic guitar (Western symbol of evil) and commenced
a very serious and well-bred sing-song prologue-kind of Pandit Nehru
meets Billy Bragg-I ran out of hope for the about-to-unfold play.
Once he ditched the guitar for his two comedia del'arte style masks,
he was okay. I mean, technically, Rajan's brilliant, as he plays
Gobi and Zina, husband and wife, interacting together. Simple things
like the sound effects of the till opening involved awesome orchestration
with Rajan's miming. There is no doubt the guy's a pro - his split-second
character changes were overwhelmingly clever, and yes, I did begin
to feel for the two estranged Indians and their daily struggles
in this foreign land.
But one thing that was hard to stomach was, well, the stereotyping.
I guess a little cliché-leaning is inevitable in a portrayal of
the generic Indian-as-Dairy-Owner, but even Apu of The Simpsons
gets to break out of the monotonous-dichotomous materialist vs spiritualist
bind from time to time. And although admittedly the medium of the
cartoon allows for the imaginary to be let loose, isn't that also
what the theatre is meant to be for?
It's too easy to get a laugh out of waggling your head and talking
like Peter Sellers. Rajan relaxed into this 'lite 'n' palatable'
racism whilst eschewing less cosy stereotypes, (which I guess makes
him more like the Billy T. James of the Indian Community than the
Alan Duff). For example, Gobi just happens to be a hen-pecked husband.
Well, of course they exist in India, and may even make good comic
subjects-but only because they represent the flip side to a much
more widespread marital inequity (see the chilling documentaries
of Anand Patwardhan if you want to know the real stories about contemporary
bride burning and dowry murders). By the same token, Gobi just happens
to get ripped off by his customers, surely an unusual reversal of
the status quo in the Western world! This seemed super ironic to
me at the time, as I was short-changed twice by two different Indian
shop-owners during my brief stay in Wellington.
Poor Gobi, not only does he get swindled, but, very suddenly, shot
to death! Well, I guess it's theatre and all, but when was the last
time you heard of this happening in New Zealand? I would have thought
that Gobi would have had more chance of coming to a sticky end back
in Mother India than here, where he was far more likely to die of
To further ennoble the life (and death) of a prosaic dairy owner,
we were occasionally jolted out of the contemporary corner store
to a mystical if somewhat saccharine re-enactment of the story of
Shah Jahan and Mumtaz in what seemed like, rather inappropriately,
Venice carnival get-up. The story of the Taj Mahal's creation is
beautiful and legendary, and hardly needs Rajan to don an iridescent
blue mask and his best BBC intonation to bring it to life. I felt
at this point, that Rajan needed the discipline of good art direction,
and that Lewis' emphasis on the emotive bore no mind for all-important
issues of style. Rather than evoking the courtly manners of the
great Moghul, Rajan's Shah Jahan looked more like a candidate for
some kind of ambassadorial role in Deep Space Nine.
What upset me most, was the dearth of any mention of Hindi films
or even filmi songs. The wealth of material which the team of director
and actor overlooked here is unimaginable, and seems to me a strategic
blunder. It's easy enough to argue that demanding references to
Bollywood in an Indian play is like demanding that all British drama
refer to The Spice Girls. But in terms of the Indian diaspora, I
think it's fair enough to say that one of the most prevalent ways
in which Indians around the world keep in touch with their culture
is through the medium of popular films.
A case in point; while in Wellington I bought a bunch of flowers
from a woman in an Indian dairy who was more intent on singing along
with the soundtrack to Hum Aapke Haim Koun than she was in
serving me. And if I was a shop girl I think I'd be more likely
to spend my time in reverie over Salman Khan than in the re-creation
of Ganesh legends with pieces of fruit or in the re-telling of the
poignant tale of the Taj Mahal, (which is how Zina spends her time
when she's not filching Oddfellows from behind Gobi's back). The
Bollywood phenomenon is undergoing a global media explosion. The
Taj chestnuts are wonderful-I'll never tire of "his beard turned
white overnight" or "he cut off all the architects' hands" (why
hasn't somebody done that to JASMAX?)-but they could do with a little
bit of updating.
Speaking of explosions, I'm also agog that Rajan and Lewis managed
to overlook the opportunity to slip in at least passing reference
to Indian nuclear testing (considering Gobi displays the papers'
headlines outside the shop every morning). The whole play, already,
had the feeling of being packed in mothballs, a kind of 36 Chowringhee
Lane for the Antipodes. Here's the rub-if a film like Bhaji on
the Beach can keep the wrinklies tickled at the same time as
talking about real issues for British Asian Youth, why is Krishnan's
Dairy so overwhelmingly aimed at a white middle-aged audience whose
only contact with the Indian community would be at their corner
dairy? (This could be a case of a play which changes tenor when
it changes location-apparently when Krishnan's Dairy was
at Bats, Indians were attending in droves).
Watching Rajan strumming his Acoustic guitar, I couldn't help but
compare him to the wealth of ultracool Indo-flavoured pop coming
out of England, from Cornershop to Asian Dub Foundation. Would that
local Indian cultural production had the energy and diversity of
Britain's right now. It's not just a numbers thing. Cultural exchange
is a two-way street. I could have hoped for more from Krishnan's
Dairy, but judging by the audience's response, it fulfilled
all the needs of a certain theatrical niche market. Wellington seems
to breed the type of fur-clad matrons (with maws that orthodontic
fortunes are built upon) who will always clap and whinny "marvellous
darling" regardless of whether or nor they were awake for the preceding
hour. When the audience is this undiscerning and this determined
to support "culture" at all costs, then Rajan's portrayal of things
Indian not only suffices, it exceeds expectations and subsequently
gets canonised a "great play". Take it from the Wellingtonians;
they know their theatre.
26 June 1998