'Guru of Chai' a small play with epic scope

Any good artist will tell you that inspiration can strike anywhere. Still, one doesn’t expect it to happen while being stung by fire ants.

“We were at a workshop taking place in the Outback,” says Jacob Rajan, who co-wrote and stars in Indian Ink Theatre Company’s production of “The Guru of Chai,” which runs Thursday through Saturday at the Lied Center. “Several of the exercises were done outside, and the Outback is quite inhospitable. During one of them (co-writer) Justin (Lewis) was attacked by fire ants.”

That’s perhaps an unusual beginning for a fairytale play about a young girl abandoned at a train station in Bangalore, especially one written by a pair of New Zealanders. But, as it happened, stinging insects only got things started.

“We wanted to write a play that could be performed anywhere,” Rajan says. “That was the whole point of the workshop.”

Inspired by the idea of a play that would fit anywhere, Rajan and Lewis began researching source material and came across a lesser-known Indian fairytale called “Punchkin.” It tells the story of a princess abandoned by her father.

“The story was written in the original Grimm tradition,” Rajan says about the source. “It actually has quite a horrific ending.”

As they worked through the material, though, something just wasn’t working. That’s when their dramaturge, Murray Edmond, made a key suggestion.

“The problem was the original story was very entrenched in the old ideas of kings and queens,” Rajan says. “It didn’t have a lot of meaning for modern audiences. Murray suggested we bring the story into the present, and that’s when it really took off.”

“The Guru of Chai” concerns a tea seller (a chai wallah) working in a busy Bangalore train station. A young girl is abandoned at the station, and the tea seller’s life becomes transformed by her singing. Indeed, she mesmerizes everyone present.

The play captures the dichotomy of Indian life — ancient gods are worshipped side by side with iPhones; wealth and luxury coexist with unimaginable poverty. The story is epic in scale.

But wait. Wasn’t this supposed to be something that could be performed anywhere?

Indeed it is, and to accomplish that, Rajan plays the entire cast — some 16 characters — himself.

“When you are telling a story of this scope,” he says, “you can do it justice one of two ways. You can either have a cast of thousands, or you can do it with just one person.”

The tea seller is the narrator, and he tells the fairytale, acting out each of the parts himself.

“He becomes an untrustworthy narrator,” Rajan says, “because he becomes involved in the story.”

Rajan’s background is in mask theater, and he uses a number of body contortions, accents and other devices to convey changes in character. He’s accompanied by musician Dave Ward, who performs original music. Together, they can put this show on anywhere.

“We’ve had over 30 performances in people’s living rooms,” Rajan says. “We squeeze people in on dining room tables, anywhere they could fit.”

This weekend they’ll have a little more space than that. “The Guru of Chai” comes to the Lied Center, but the expansive stage and house isn’t daunting to the performers used to a more intimate setting.

“We designed the show so it could be performed in tiny spaces,” he says, “but in traditional theaters, we push that bubble out.” Big stage or small, though, Rajan and Lewis are interested in leaving a lasting impression.

“I think all fairytales — the good ones, anyway — resonate with audiences of all ages,” he says. “That’s why they’ve been with us for so long. This one still has that dark theme from the original running through it; it’s targeted more for adults. But it’s funny, it’s touching, and I hope there’s something in it for everyone.”

“The Guru of Chai” plays Feb. 7, 8, and 9 at the Lied Center. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. General admission tickets cost $17 for students and youths and $32 for adults, and are available at the door.


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