A challenge for any thespian is unmasking a character. Stepping into a new identity and learning to wear it like a second skin can often be a lengthy process. But Jacob Rajan, who performs in the one-man play Guru of Chai, does this multiple times during the 75-minute show.
Rajan, one half of New Zealand-based theatre company Indian Ink, plays a host of characters that span three generations. The story, based on an Indian fable about a tea-seller's madcap memoirs as he plays surrogate father to seven orphaned sisters, is belly-laugh stuff. Both Rajan and his compatriot Dave Ward, who creates the musical backdrop of the play, craft an authenticity into this tale and its multiple locales.
We first see Rajan as the buck-toothed, middle-aged tea seller, Kutisar. He addresses the audience in his opening monologue that calls them out on their first world pains – work that is meaningless, hopes and dreams that turn into dust, and "painful urination", a symptom of gout and a nod to the excesses of developed societies. Animated and infectious, Kutisar promises laughter, enlightenment, and the answers to all of life's burning questions.
With this declaration, he plunges the audience into his world – a humble tea stand amidst a busy train station in Bangalore.
It is here that Rajan introduces a multitude of characters into his story, slipping in and out of each one with subtle shifts in his vocal modulation, body language and gestures. Rajan, who has established himself as a master of mask work withKrishnan's Dairy and The Candlestickmaker, shows that he is just as adept when shedding his trusty masks to perform in full view of the audience. We meet seven singing sisters abandoned by their father; a villain, Thumbi, who is after their takings; a pot-bellied police officer, Punchkin, and several others... and Rajan adroitly embodies them all, fleshing out an appearance and personality for each.
He differentiates each character with such dexterity that it is easy to keep up with the plot, even during rapid-fire exchanges between characters. For instance, Rajan creates palpable tension during the standoff between Punchkin and Thumbi, two alpha-male characters jostling for control over the busy train station in downtown Bangalore, alternately hopping up and downstage to deliver each character's lines during the clash.
He is aided in no small part by composer Ward, who is seated onstage for the entire duration of the play. Ward uses a host of items, which range from the unlikely (a crumpled plastic bag and a pair of sticks) to the traditional (a tuneful wooden flute), and creates a host of sound effects that help craft the scenes in the minds of viewers. Ward, as introduced by Kutisar, is unable to speak except in song, but his mellow presence is a welcome foil to Rajan's unrelenting zest.
Together they perform on a fairly shallow and cosy static set that comprises a backdrop of folding slats, a raised platform draped in fabric bursting with orange and purple hues, and a small tea stand to anchor Kutisar's presence in the play. This design shrinks the performance space of DBS Arts Centre into a cosy nook, an intimate setting that nicely ensconces the ongoing conversation between Kutisar and the audience.
Rajan maintains this connection by breaking away from the tale from time to time to live up to his promise as the Guru, dropping words of wisdom infused with comic gems. For example, "It is true in life that as soon as your cup is full, someone pisses in it," he deadpans. And in another scene, he gently pokes fun at the women in the audience: "You are a gift from God, but you are not God's gift."
But amidst all the "chitty chatter", Rajan infuses the quieter moments of the play with a contemplative quality. Musing, as an older, more melancholy Punchkin, that "empty is the house without a girl", he articulates a universal fear of loneliness.
Even the gregarious Kutisar is not above this longing for companionship as he admits, in a Beckettian moment, that his constant chatter is to avoid silence. The hush that follows his admission is as much for the audience to contemplate their own lives as it is for the Guru.
In the end Kutisar delivers none of the promised answers. "Truthfully, I lied," he says without remorse.
Perhaps these answers were never meant to lie with Kutisar all along. The story of this Guru of chai, while full of jollity, is not a groundbreaking one. Stopping just short of a fairytale by dint of a bittersweet twist at the end, this play may attempt to illuminate the dark spaces that lurk behind easy laughter, but its light is faint and does not provide much new insight into these inky depths, leaving the audience to mull over a semi-satisfying ending as they shuffle out of the theatre and back into society.
Still, that could be the ultimate message from the Guru – that there is no easy solution to the universal truths of love, loss and loneliness, only our own willingness to dredge them up and confront them in the most honest way we can. And perhaps that is the most poignant lesson in this Guru's book of tall tales and wistful melodies.