The Guru of Chai

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

Written and performed by Jacob Rajan
Directed by Justin Lewis
Q Theatre, Auckland | July 10-21

Solo shows are always a risky proposition for an audience. The performer needs to be charismatic, compelling, and interesting to watch. In turn, an audience needs to be invested in the performer for an entire hour, perhaps even longer. There’s no reprieve from the performer, no cutting away to another scene or other actors—it’s just them. I am delighted to say that Jacob Rajan is not only all of these things—and he is all of them in spades—but The Guru of Chai is one of the more satisfying shows, solo or otherwise, that I’ve seen in a long time.

It’s a gripping, engrossing story too. Based on the “Punchkin” fairytale—which, full disclosure, I have no familiarity with—The Guru of Chai revolves around Kutisar, the titular guru, who runs his chai stand at the Bangalore train station. He spots the elephant god Ganesh, as one does, and at the same time notices seven sisters singing for their keep at a train station. What follows is a story of love, family, and commitment, capturing life in India that, while entirely alien to me, is made familiar and immediate.

It’s difficult to comment on the show without commenting on Rajan. In saying that, I will say that the show benefits from being well toured: its genesis began at the University of Auckland Drama Studio in 2010, and has since gone to Wellington, the Maidment, and even internationally to Singapore, Sydney, and the USA. The show is a slick, well-oiled machine, yet one that still feels spontaneous, alive, and as real as a night of theatre should feel.

Now, onto Rajan. Frankly, Rajan is nothing short of brilliant in this show. He moves between roles fluidly, defining characters as distinct as the police officer Punchkin and the youngest singing sister Balna with only a few key physical choices and vocal modulations. Not only does he define the characters, he gives them depth as well. From the moment he slips into a character, that character is created not only on stage, but in our minds. With all these characters, he not only keeps the pace of the show up, but he shapes the world around them. This isn’t the India of gritty documentaries or the India of glossy travel guides; it’s an India of real, living, breathing people with their own stories to tell.

If being a chameleon wasn’t enough, Rajan is also a damn fine dramatic and comedic actor. He goes from moments of unrelenting despair to relative lightness as quickly as any actor I’ve seen, and without seeming showy, he’s merely moving himself along with the demands of the piece. Rajan also has amazing comic timing, which helps keep the show light and moving along at a clip. When I looked at the running time, I was sceptical of the 75 minute length, but it felt like barely half an hour sitting in there. The story, and Rajan’s powerful charisma reaching out and touching even the back row (literally), keeps you fully immersed in the show.

Special note must go to David Ward, who plays the music, does the sound effects, and acts as an on-stage ‘reactor’ to what Rajan is saying. He’s almost as much a joy to watch as Rajan as a man who has taken a vow of silence, and reacts honestly and beautifully to the story as it plays out onstage. And he does it all while providing the beautiful soundscape for the play, musically and with his soundboard.

The Guru of Chai is more than a great show; it’s a great story. It isn’t carried by Rajan; it rests easily on his shoulders, as easily as some of the clothes in the show that he uses to define characters. It combines the mythological and the gritty to deliver some key emotional truths, which I won’t spoil, but it makes this extremely specific, realism-bending tale of love and betrayal in India into a universal story both life-questioning and life-affirming.