Telling stories of your homeland to an alien audience is well a challenge, but moreover, it’s a brave effort in itself. And Prayas Theatre has been all about that “effort”.

After stunning both Indians and Kiwis alike with their last production “Rudali”, which unearthed the grim reality of female mourners in remote Indian villages, Prayas now prepares to delight and enthral with their upcoming offering “Thali” (meaning platter in Hindi) at the Auckland Fringe Festival.

Presenting a platter that exudes an enchanting mix of Indian aromas – from politics and food to films and mythology – Prayas attempts to give Fringe the ideal taste of South Asian culture with four excitingly diverse short plays rolled into one performance.
While three of these are adaptations of plays from India and UK, the fourth is an original piece of writing by local writer and ‘Thali’s crew member Sananda Chatterjee.

“We had to have one New Zealand story in there,” says Ahi Karunaharan, who is directing “Through the grapevine” written by Sananda along with Nikhil Sriram’s “P James for President” and Mathivanan Rajendran’s award-winning play “My Name is Cine-Ma”, both works from Chennai-based theatre company Stray Factory.

Accompanying Ahi in bringing India alive on stage is his co-director/actor Monica Mahendru.

Monica helms the fourth serving in “Thali” – “Balti Kings” (written by Sudha Bhuchar and Shaheen Khan) – a comical peek into Birmingham’s Balti Land by the acclaimed British-Asian theatre company, Tamasha, in UK. She also performs solo in “Through the Grapevine”, which deconstructs history as two mythological characters come together for a cup of coffee in modern times.

“We reached out to South Asian theatre artistes for scripts and picked plays that we felt resonated with us and NZ. Also, since it was Fringe, we had the leeway to experiment and thought it would be interesting to have a variety of genres,” Monica says.

“Interestingly, all the four plays depict different social strata and the cast is a mix of diverse age groups too,” Ahi chips in.

And most importantly, the performance has the Indian stamp of “song and dance”. “Europeans have set expectations from Indian performances. You can’t present anything stark or modern. They would be like ‘where is the song and dance’? So it’s disappointing at times but one has to accept the fact that we got to celebrate what we are known for,” Ahi explains.

A rush of colour, the exotic element and lots of music (a trademark of Prayas, although without ‘live music’ this time round) certainly awaits Fringe but there is something on the storytelling front too that makes an essentially Indian experience palatable to a largely non-Indian audience.

Besides, Prayas is the only Indian theatre company in Auckland which has a strong association with TAPAC (The Auckland Performing Arts Centre), thereby assuring it’s easy gateway into the mainstream theatre circuit. It’s also the only community theatre group to participate at the Fringe Festival this year. And the sole Indian community theatre company to perform in English.

“I think what works in forming a connect are basic human emotions – love, compassion, dreams. For instance, the idea of being seduced by cinema, that’s portrayed in ‘My Name...’ or the larger theme of what is art and how do you sell it out in ‘P James...’ are all familiar but told with a different perspective. They bring out specificity through universality. But the primary necessity is that the stories should connect with the storytellers first. Only then can they connect with the audience,” Ahi elucidates.

Naturally, for this Sri Lankan writer/actor/director/pianist, who has been involved in the European theatre scene in NZ and UK from the past 15 years, joining Prayas was an obvious decision.

“As a brown, being involved in mainstream European theatre invites tremendous frustration of getting stereotyped. In my acting career so far, I have hardly been able to rise above roles like that of a terrorist, dairy owner or taxi-driver. They can’t see you as a rockstar. So in order to make things happen, you have to do it yourself,” Ahi reveals.

And the driving force through it all is Amit Ohdedar, the founder of Prayas, who also plays an integral part in “Balti Kings”.
“Amit da brings clarity and objectivity to the production. He is testimony to developing talent. It is he, who gave a ‘by chance’ actor like me the huge responsibility of co-directing a production. As an actor, you are privileged and come into the picture only when everything else is in place. So, to be involved in a production right from its conceptualisation to the final performance, is the best learning opportunity,” Monica says.

Ahi and Monica have very well tapped into each other’s strengths and divided work accordingly. While Ahi puts to use his expertise in movement and theatricality with ‘My Name...’ and ‘P James...’, Monica brings in her sense of food as a Punjabi and inclination towards relationships and drama in ‘Balti Kings’.

“The beauty of a group like Prayas is that we all come from different cultural backgrounds to create one theatrical language,” Ahi so rightly concludes. “Thali” is produced by Padma Akula and Sudeepta Vyas.

When: 3rd, 4th and 5th March at 7.30pm. 8th March at 8.30pm.
Where: TAPAC,100 Motions Road, Western Springs.
For bookings, log on to www.tapac.org.nz or ph (09) 845 0295