Described as a stirring comedy steeped in romance, The Guru of Chai blends modern India with romantic tradition and opens, with an excellent pedigree, at the Arts Centre next month.

The Guru of Chai boasts two Edinburgh Fringe First awards, three Production of the Year awards and Best Play, Best Composer and Best Actor at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards. It is a wonderful journey of discovery based on an old Indian fairy tale says Jacob Rajan, performer and co-founder of production company, Indian Ink.

“We stumbled across an Indian fairy tale called Punchkin while researching for a children’s show. The fable had a dark morality that we thought was completely inappropriate for children but the story got under my skin and we decided to make an adaptation for adults. We dismantled the original fairy tale and reassembled it in modern India. The result was an epic comic, romantic thriller with a dash of magic realism.”

Rajan and director Justin Lewis are responsible for creating the piece and have enjoyed the success of their work which has been highly lauded for its use of live music, heightened theatricality, humour, pathos and accomplished storytelling.

The demands of the work are high, with Rajan playing 17 different characters, but getting it to performance level was also fraught with challenges as Rajan explains:

“We launched the show in people’s houses. We’d come to your house 2 hours before opening; clear out your living room furniture; erect the entire set (including dimmable lights) and perform to your friends and family who were perched on your sofa, coffee table and dinning room chairs. It was hard work to pack in and out of a new venue every night over 30 performances and it wasn’t without its challenges. Like figuring out how to fit our set into your apartment’s lift or how to stop our lighting rig blowing your fuses. But it was the definition of intimate theatre and made for some of instants of accidental, theatre magic. I remember one such moment when, at the point my character recounts how 7 sisters are abandoned in a railway station, I looked up and saw a group of young, Indian women, dressed in identical saris, peering out from our host’s kitchen. They were the staff of the caterers drawn out by their curiosity and unwittingly stepping into the world of the play.”

Guru of Cahai dancing

For Rajan, the joy of the work lies in the direct engagement between the storyteller, the musician and the audience. For him, this keeps the show’s energy crackling and fresh every night.

Amongst its rambunctiousness, the play does serve  a more serious fare, raising questions of corruption and morality.  “There’s often a strong moral present in fairy tales and Punchkin was no exception,” says Rajan. “Although the original tale is probably barely recognizable in our adaptation, at its heart, the play embodies the danger of keeping your soul locked in a cage. It is a cautionary tale of power corrupting morality that is all too relevant today.”

Rajan is, of course, the Guru of Chai and in this guise is by turns charming, loathsome and absurdly profound.  “Within minutes of the show starting the Guru promises to “Take away everything that is wrong with your life.” It’s an enticing offer from a dubious source but it resonates so deeply with our Western mindset that it’s hard to resist,” says Rajan. “In that way our Guru represents our desire for instant spirituality. An acknowledgment of the failure of our diets and our shampoos and our phones to make us happy.”

The Guru of Chai has indeed made its mark says Rajan : “A 20-minute showing of this piece secured a top U.S. theatre agent. The show went on to win Play of the Year, Actor of the Year and Composer of the Year  – you’d be mad to miss it.”

August 22 – 27

www.artscentremelbourne.com.au

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