Guru of Chai

by Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis
music by David Ward
Indian Ink Theatre Company and the Singapore Repertory Theatre
DBS Arts Centre, Singapore

There are few better ways to spend an evening than listening to a master storyteller. Having delighted audiences around the world with productions such as The Candlestickmaker and Krishnan's Dairy, New Zealand's Indian Ink Theatre Company is back at the SRT with their most recent show, Guru of Chai. This was my first time catching one of Jacob Rajan's shows and the man can certainly entertain.

Guru of Chai is about a humble chai wallah (tea seller) in a Bangalore train station who chronicles his adventures with singing sisters, policemen and folks from all walks of life. The dynamic Rajan inhabits every one of the characters, from the menacing glare of a bandit to the excited babble of teenagers. He also delights us with mime and little sleights of hand, making us feel like kids at a birthday party. Behind the sweet, rustic charm of Guru of Chai, one sees the clash of tradition and modernity in modern India, a theme that has been adroitly dealt with in books like Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger and Vikas Swarup's Q&A. Rajan throws in hilarious references to iPhones, CCTV cameras and Starbucks outlets amidst the more authentic, spiritual backdrop.

One of the joys of a show by Indian Ink is its celebration of the simple pleasures of live theatre. All the music, sound effects and songs are performed by David Ward, who sits on stage the entire time with an amused expression on his face. The rustling of a plastic bag becomes the wind, a shrill trumpet signals the train and folksy ethnic songs brilliantly set the mood. At one point, Rajan gives his stuffed red parrot to someone at the back of the theatre and asks him to pass it forward, suggesting that the parrot is slowly flying to him. At another moment, he implores us to close our eyes while he tries to hide (unsuccessfully) in a corner.

If there is a weak point to this 75 minute performance, it was that I found myself more entertained by Rajan and his constantly engaging presence than the actual story he was narrating. This becomes especially evident towards the end where we are in pursuit of a mysterious overlord of the city and the narrative feels a bit thin. However, Rajan manages to carry it through and we are left rooting for his cheeky, unflappable hero till the end.

Rajan tells us at the beginning of the show that he is there to dispense advice and distract us from our meaningless lives. Guru of Chai reminds us that while there is no panacea for our worldly problems, we should never discount the importance of adventure and romance. Like a strong, invigorating brew, his cup of tea does not fail to warm the heart.

The Crystalwords score: 7/10 


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