Indian Ink celebrates 25 years of South Asian theatre

For a quarter of a century, the Indian Ink Theatre Company has showcased South Asian stories to Aotearoa and the world. Ahead of an upcoming tour of the company’s famous production, Krishnan’s Dairy, and its loose sequel Mrs Krishnan’s Party, we talk to Indian Ink co-founder Jacob Rajan and Mrs Krishnan actor Kalyani Nagarajan about the productions and celebrating 25 years.

For Indian Ink co-founder Jacob Rajan, the theatre company started in 1997, in a chilly Wellington church hall just down the road from his parent’s place. That was the beginning of Krishnan’s Dairy, Indian Ink’s most well-known play. 

“We had just made the masks and we were kind of playing around in this tiny, tiny space underneath a church, coming up with the characters and the world,” Rajan says.  

Jacob Rajan in a previous performance of Krishnan's Dairy, complete with mask. Image: Supplied

The play is a love story to Rajan and revolves around two couples, who live centuries apart: the first is Gobi and Zina Krishnan, immigrants to New Zealand who open a dairy; the second is Shah Jahan, the emperor who built the Taj Mahal and Mumtaz Mahal, his wife and the one he built the Taj Mahal for.  

He wrote it with Justin Lewis, Indian Ink’s other cofounder, who helped develop the signature mask work of the play.  

Rajan and Lewis met by a stroke of luckLewis stepped in to cover for a sick stage manager for a show Rajan was acting in. Once Rajan found out Lewis had studied under John Bolton, a Melbourne-based actor and director who taught mask work, he knew he wanted to work with him.  

“When I found out that Justin had actually graduated from the guru himself, I was thrilled because I had this little 20-minute mask piece that I wanted to expand to a full-length play [Krishnan’s Dairy],” Rajan says.  

Indian Ink has its roots in Krishnan's Dairy - Rajan (pictured) and co-founder Justin Lewis developed the play in a chilly Wellington church hall in 1997. Image: Supplied

In 1999, it went to Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it picked up a five-star review, a front-page review and played to sold-out audiences. Even now that’s the first thing Rajan goes to when thinking about the big moments from Indian Ink’s 25-year history.  

"It was so amazing - more amazing in retrospect. When I think of Edinburgh now and what a neurotic minefield it is for an actor, coming into this town where it's just mad. Back then it was 1300 shows opening on opening night.”  

“It's a real test of your mettle to be there.” 

If it was a test, it was one Indian Ink passed with flying colours, winning the Edinburgh Fringe First award. 

Krishnan’s Dairy has since played around the world: Germany, America, Singapore, India, Fiji – and of course New Zealand.  

To celebrate Indian Ink's 25th anniversary, Krishnan's Dairy will go on a national tour - and will cross over with a run of Mrs Krishnan's Party in Auckland. Image: Supplied

But over the last 25 years, it hasn’t just been Krishnan’s Dairy in the spotlight. Rajan, Lewis, and Indian Ink have created 10 further productions, including titles like The Pickle King and Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream. Over that time too, they’ve gathered a list of awards, including Production of the Year awards and Best Play, Best Composer and Best Actor at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards.   

Also included on their list of productions is Mrs Krishnan’s Party, which is getting its own run in 2022 as part of celebrating Indian Ink’s 25 years. Mrs Krishnan’s Party is a loose sequel to Krishnan’s Dairy and the two performances will cross over in June as both are shown at Auckland’s Q Theatre – although Krishnan’s Dairy will go on for a national tour.  

In Mrs Krishnan’s Party, actor and teacher Kalyani Nagarajan is playing the title character, a role she knows very well. In many senses, Nagarajan grew up with Mrs Krishnan’s Party.  

“The show’s been part of my life since I was 18,” she says. She was at Toi Whakaari where Rajan saw her perform - that was the spark for her to join Indian Ink as Mrs Krishnan’s Party was being developed. The play premiered in 2017.   

Kalyani Nagarajan has performed in Mrs Krishnan's Party well into the triple digits. Image: Supplied

Since then, she’s played the titular role of Mrs Zina Krishnan an amount that’s “definitely in the triple digits”.  

“It's a beautiful show about change between two very different generations. Mrs Krishnan is at a moment in her life where she's in limbo. She wants to sell the dairy that meant so much to her late husband [but] she feels bound by her duty.” 

On top of this, her dairy becomes party central as celebrations for the harvest festival of Onam kick-off. 

Playing Mrs Krishnan is a hard gig – when Nagarajan performs, she’s handling the audience, she’s dancing, performing – she's even cooking at some points. 

It’s become easier to do over time, as she’s stepped onstage more and more often as Mrs Krishnan.  

“It's given me a level of maturity with performance that I don't think I would have if I hadn't gotten deep into it,” she says. 

A performance of Mrs Krishnan's Party. Image: Supplied

Nagarajan has performed the show across Canada and the US, including with laidback crowds in Hawaii, but her favourite shows are the school shows – that's where you find audiences that aren’t afraid to really get into the party atmosphere of the show. 

“It's a really beautiful show and special to my heart, so it's cool it's getting another Auckland season, especially with the [Indian Ink’s] twenty-five years.” 

Heading into this run and reflecting on 25 years of Indian Ink, Nagarajan calls her time with the company “a full circle”. 

“You work with the pioneer South Asian company for the majority of your 'growing up' adulthood and then they've platformed me to go 'now it's time for me to move on and start to lead the next generation'.  

“That's how it works, that constant affirmation for minority groups here in the performing arts is that beautiful circle and that beautiful giving nature of how we build our community up.” 

Krishnan’s Dairy will be showing in Auckland’s Q Theatre from June 9 to June 26, and Mrs Krishnan’s Party will be playing in the same venue from June 16 to July 3. Tickets and details are here.  

Krishnan’s Dairy will then head off on a national tour, stopping in Kāpiti, Christchurch, Hamilton and Wellington. Details on tickets are here

- Asia Media Centre