Guru of Chai

Theatre, Drama
Guru of Chai 2017 Indian Ink at Belvoir Downstairs production still 01 feat Jacob Rajan and Adam Ogle photographer credit Brett Boardman
Photograph: Brett Boardman Jacob Rajan and Adam Ogle

Jacob Rajan's New Zealand-made but internationally acclaimed one-man show pops up at Arts Centre Melbourne

The Belvoir audience is on its last legs, says Kutisah (actor-writer Jacob Rajan) by way of introduction. He’s had a chat with artistic director Eamon Flack, who told him, in confidence probably, that the typical punter is either stressed, depressed, overweight or drunk.

Kutisah is undaunted. In fact, he says, tonight’s crowd of stressed-out self-medicators should consider this evening as a form of therapy. Good for the soul. Good for the mind. Good, even, for infections of the urinary tract.

I can only attest to its effectiveness in the first two areas, but after watching this remarkable exercise in storytelling unfold, nothing would surprise me.

Adapting an Indian folktale known in English as Punchkin, Rajan spirits us away to Bangalore, India, for a serpentine tale of unrequited love.

Kutisah is a humble chai seller working in the city’s vast Central Railway Station. One morning, seven young sisters approach him. They have been abandoned by their father. They have no money, no friends, no one to look after them.

Kutisah is no guardian angel but he does give them space to do a little busking, which in no time at all, rakes in a pile of money. The singing and beauty of one sister in particular, Balna, captures the attention of a portly policeman, Punchkin. The girls’ ability to rake in the rupees also attracts thugs in the employ of a feared Bangalore crime boss known as The Fakir.

Narrated by an hilariously unreliable guide and unfolding over 90 minutes, Guru of Chai is a beautifully wrought monologue full of melodramatic twists, godly interventions and wry observations on Indian society: on wealth and poverty, the rush to embrace western culture (at one point in the tale Kutisah finds himself trying to operate a chai stall next to a Starbucks), and the stranglehold of bureaucracy and corruption.

Directed by Justin Lewis (who also co-wrote the script) and supported by Adam Ogle on a drone-tuned guitar and electronic drum pads, Rajan is a marvellously versatile storyteller. Over the course of the evening he gives voice to more than 20 characters, each with its own distinctive timbre and presence. His sleight-of-hand tricks and shadow puppetry is delightful, his rapport with the audience warm and instant.

Rajan has performed this work for several years now and his mastery of the material is total. For anyone interested in the art of storytelling, Guru of Chai is essential viewing.

This 4-star review of Guru of Chai originally ran in Time Out Sydney in May 2017.

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