Prayas, New Zealand’s well-known South Asian theatre group, celebrated its fifteenth anniversary this month with an unusual eight-in-one stage production titled Yatra.

Eight plays of varying durations, treatments and genres were strung together into a somewhat kaleidoscopic production performed across a week at the TAPAC theatre in central Auckland.

Speaking to this writer, talented actor, director and long-time Prayas member,  Aman Bajaj said, “Yatra came about as Prayas wanted to stage a production that showcased genres and milieus that we have done before as well as those that have not yet been explored yet. The production is meant to be a smorgasbord celebrating Prayas' 15th year.”

The eight plays are all in a South Asian setting and context – a thali more than a smorgasbord, with varying flavours, colours and consistencies. In Bajaj’s words, “The common thread would be showcasing South Asian stories across different places, themes and time periods.” The plays are by eight different playwrights from across the world.

While the plays are not meant to flow into one another sequentially or in any order, every play melds into the next with on-stage movements of cast and crew, in a seemingly choreographed manner – in itself a delight to watch. The set – translucent partitions common to all the plays – are shuffled, while the interchangeable cast and crew make their entries, exits or stay on stage seamlessly.

“This structure of the production enabled Prayas to showcase an eclectic range of eight stories that were eventually chosen as part of the final production,” Bajaj added.

Like the variegated offering in a thali, the plays differ considerably in content, duration, treatment – and delectability. The Rishabh Kapoor-directed ‘Thaneer Thaneer’ [water, water] by writer Komal Swaminathan stands out most memorably as a production followed by director Aman Bajaj’s ‘The Guards at the Taj’ for its unique moment-in-history theme, powerful dialogue and performance.

Manjula Padmanabhan’s ‘Know the Truth’, also directed by Bajaj, and ‘Thaneer, Thaneer’ though written some years ago, still find relevance underscoring the need for unbiased media, especially in today’s social media madness. 

Deeply embedded attitudes, which unfortunately are the leitmotif of even modern-day South Asian society are reflected in ‘Aurat’ and ‘Ten Tonne Tongue’ staged with different but interesting creative treatments by directors Sneha Shetty and Sananda Chatterjee respectively. The plays are by celebrated playwright Safdar Hashmi (‘Aurat’, actually a street play) and Gautam Raja.

Prayas has established its credentials as a quality theatre group for some time now and Yatra encapsulates its 15-year journey. Speaking of the selection of plays for Yatra Bajaj said, “Some pieces were picked as they told stories about parts of the subcontinent that have not yet been explored on stage while others were genres that Prayas had not dabbled in for a while.”

According to Bajaj this selection of eight plays provided a “fantastic range of casting options that helped us leverage the talented pool of actors.”

The performances are indeed superlative. The actors were all of a high watermark. It is commendable that most performers, if not all, are not professional theatre persons but their dedication to their muse shone brightly through – especially given that many of the rehearsals were done amidst social distancing and over video conferencing apps.

“We also had to reduce the number of seats in our shows in order to follow the government restrictions and are looking forward to performing at full capacity for the last few shows now that Auckland will be going into Level 1,” Bajaj said. 

Finally, as almost always with thalis, there was an item or two that keeps one guessing what it was and why was it there at all...

Dev Nadkarni is Editor-at-Large of The Indian Weekender