Cultural Storytellers: Sananda Chatterjee

Picture of Sananda Chatterjee
Renee Liang talks to Sananda Chatterjee about Indian Theatre group Prayas, what makes cultural th


Renee Liang talks to Sananda Chatterjee about Indian Theatre group Prayas, what makes cultural theatre successful and the importance of baby steps.

* * *

You know, sometimes I’m guilty of too much navel-gazing.  The umbilicus after all is the evidence that we were once tied to our mothers, through them to their mothers and so on.  Having a past is important.  Looking at it, reinterpreting it and stepping through it to look again at ourselves, well that’s one thing we writers like to do.

But I realise I’ve been talking too much about myself.  New Zealand has many voices in cultural storytelling.  Being a great big melting pot isn’t just a pop song lyric; it really is like that in our lovely land of milk and honey.  Sure, there was a time when it all seemed a bit monocultural. But even back then people wrote with pride and introspection about their Scottish or Irish heritage, and then we witnessed the growth of Maori storytelling, followed by Pacific Island voices. And now there are writers, coming from every culture, now making NZ their home.

So I’ve decided do a series on cultural storytellers.  Now the term ‘cultural’ throws up all sorts of connotations, which I’m going to do my best to ignore. (Sorry to all you political lions out there.)  All I’m talking about is people trying to write about the experiences of the culture they come from, to record the stories that they deem important.  So I’m going to talk to some of my friends and colleagues about it, and see what happens.

Last week, you met my friend Chris Tse.  This week, I talk to Sananda Chatterjee, a driving force in Prayas, a community Indian theatre group.  I had the pleasure of working with Prayas last year on multi-artist community theatre piece called Our Street which was a revelation in many ways (the Samoan dancing sessions being one).  Back then, I admired the ability of Prayas to work quickly on devising razor sharp dialogue, as perceptive of their culture as it was funny.  So now I’m very very excited that they are about to present their first native-written theatre piece.

Renee:  How did you devise Khoj- The Search?

Sananda:  The idea came about while we were considering our next project.  Amit Ohdedar (director) had been privy to Our Street last year.  He suggested we try and do the same - not by creating the whole thing from improvisation, but writing our own script for a change.

I don’t know if it’s more devised or just an adaptation of Rohinton Mistry's short stories 'Tales from Ferozshah Bagh'.  So we started picking out bits and pieces we thought would be intriguing to our audience and also things we could play around with, around October last year.  Fiona Graham helped us structure the storyline, got the ideas rolling etc and we had a skeleton.  From then on it was write, edit, chop, write, edit, chop over and over and over.  We wrote it between 3 of us- Amit ji, myself and our new member Poorna Prakash.

Renee:  How is this production different to previous productions Prayas has done?

Before they've all been pre-written and previously performed - tried and tested scripts. This time it’s done from scratch – there’s nothing to lead us... refreshing in a way... confusing in others.  The play is humorous but touches on very very serious topics.

Renee: That’s the best way….

Sananda:  And it’s one of the most contemporary and ever evolving themes – migration.

Renee:  And one that, if you think about it, binds all New Zealanders.  Everyone's got a migration story somewhere in their past.

Sananda: Exactly.  The play is set in the late 90s, but you could adapt it to anywhere/anytime in the world.  That’s the great thing about Rohinton Mistry's stories - they were about Canada(Toronto), but so flexible for interpretation.  He was a Booker Prize nominee for his book ‘A Fine Balance’.

You know how someone said all NZers have a story to tell?  That’s what we did - got the skeleton then had storytelling workshops.  And then that’s how we collated stories to put in the script, with a little help from Playback Theatre.

Renee:  How did Prayas first start?

I believe it was conceived in 2004-05.  I know that it grew out of the president's love of Indian theatre as well as the core members’ and they were just trying to reach out to the mainstream theatre going audience.

  Prayas has been evolving very fast, from folk theatre to contemporary and now to a homegrown theatre piece. What are the reasons for this change?

Sananda:  I just think it’s a matter of portraying the different aspects that are already present in Indian theatre.  The idea is to direct people away from the notions that they associate with India- Taj Mahal, butter chicken, Bollywood.

Charandas Chor- the first production, was very much based on the folk traditions - songs and dances, a good dosage of humour.  The Terrace was contemporary- dealt with urban lives, entanglements and complications of human relationships and nature, adultery.

And now this play deals with migration.  It’s all present within what’s performed there already.

We're just trying to give the audience a nice varied taster platter….but doing it slowly….nothing radical – yet!! 

The next project hopefully in March 2010 will be a little different to the ones that we've done already.  That will be based on street theatre, which is a very different structure altogether. I am going to be directing that one... looking forward to it!

Renee:  You said the idea is to direct people away from stereotypes of India and give them something new to think about.  Do you think that what you are giving them is Indian theatre, or something entirely new?

Sananda:  Well... the idea is just to broaden perspectives.  When we do folk forms, like Charandas Chor, that’s very much Indian.  But you have to remember that Indian theatre itself, like the culture, is very much a hybrid.  Lots of different local/migrant artforms have merged in various really cool ways.

But the trick is to try and tailor it to the audience while retaining as mch flavour of the original as possible.  Now sometimes we tell the story through stereotypes... other times we break them... I think all producers of arts do the same.

Ultimately it’s a product, and your audience is the final consumer - our drive is fuelled by their applause.  So we've got to make sure we don’t bombard them with alien things constantly.

Renee:  The members of Prayas are from different cultures too aren't they?

Sananda:  Yes, very much.  Mostly Indian, but then India is sooo varied in itself.  We've got a Kashmiri, a Punjabi, a few Bengalis, Gujarati, some mixed breeds, haha!  It’s great.

Renee:  But I notice this play is about a Parsi family...

Sananda:  Yeah. Parsis have a strong presence in the western parts, mainly Gujarat and Maharashtra (Mumbai).  One of the characters in Our Street was named Cyrus Screwwala - that’s very much a Parsi name.  Parsis are a group that migrated a long time back at the fall of the Persian Empire – the name Parsi means ‘from Persia’.  They are probably amongst the more liberated and anglicised of the lot.

Rohinton Mistry is of Parsi descent, and the stories are semi autobigraphical, from what I gather.  We did want to retain as much of the original as possible.
Renee: Who are your audience, then?

Sananda:  Our ultimate aim is to reach the mainstream NZ theatre audience and lovers of performing arts. It’s still a long way away, but we're moving closer.  This year we're performing at TAPAC- one of the hotspots for performing arts lovers…so baby steps.

Renee: Seems like you're doing really well if you're already close to selling out....

Sananda:  We have 5 shows, and 3 of those are almost full, from what I think! And it’s still far from the season, so we're hoping to have full houses per show.  It’s a great venue - lots of potential.  I hope we are able to use it to the best of our abilities.  Terry Klavanes is doing our sets, so I’ll be really excited to see the finished product.

Renee: I noticed also that Prayas has lots of actors, trained and untrained, working together. Also people from different generations.  How do you all work together so effectively?

  So far we've had only untrained, amateur cast and crew... we do it for the love of it.  This time around we have 2-3 trained ones.  I think the core bunch of actors all do it because it’s their passion, and also a very good way to unwind in the weekend.  Let’s be honest – it’s fun to work with your friends!  There's a lot of fooling around that goes on- but they pull their weight when it’s called for.  They are a very lovely bunch.

Renee:  Indeed!

Sananda:  And they all believe in Prayas' message or the effort.  And the trained actors are just bloody brilliant - so professional.  That’s very refreshing.  I think our guys and gals are learning a lot from having them on board. Mark Webley and Rashmi Pilipitaya, they are really cool. They get everybody involved, get straight into character.  And we've had some workshops with Playback Theatre, to give the actors some other tools for their kit.

Do you think Prayas will eventually evolve into a professional theatre company?

Sananda:  I truly hope it will be something of a hybrid because if it became fully professional I see it losing the element of fun that comes with community theatre - the sense of brotherhood, and friendship.  Money changes a lot of things.

Do you think some in Prayas will go on to become more serious writers and actors?

Sananda:  Most Prayas actors have a 'day job’ – I don’t think most will change career unless they have an epiphany of some sort!

I’m hoping to be a serious writer/director in the future, not that I’m not serious right now... hahah!  But I love NZ because it gives you the opportunity to at least have a go.

Renee:  How has the Indian community reacted to Prayas' work?

Sananda:  They turn out to support en masse. It’s great.

Renee:  Even the more traditional ones?  Wow.

Sananda:  Yes, even them!  You see, the idea is to get them to watch it and then comment.  Feedback is important; viewpoints are welcome.  But they sure turn up.  Plus you always get a little more participation of the sector you are portraying.  And there are a lot of Indian theatre lovers - we really do love our art.

Renee:  What do you think of colourblind casting?

The only time looks become important is if the the character is written in a very particular way and it is essential to the character.  I went to watch The Cherry Orchard this time, and none of them looked remotely Russian to me.  None of them even had vaguely close Russian accents.  So you don’t need it.  Unless the script calls for, say, a 6ft tall bloke with a pout and a muscular jawline.

Renee:  Good point….

Sananda:  I knew you’d appreciate what I was trying to say…

Renee:  The drama is more important than the look, and there are some dramas that are universal.

Sananda:  Exactly.  Actors need to be able to emote….make up can take care of the rest.
For example, Khoj could be set in Honululu with a Hawaiian cast and it'd still hold.  It would still be relevant.

Renee:  That would be fun actually...

Sananda:  I think so too! Funny as well.

  Actually, when you translated plays like The Terrace to English, did you also translate it to a NZ setting?

Sananda:  No, we didn’t.  Those were already translated.  We didn’t have to do too much work on the script with those.  We thought this time that if we did one from scratch, to show the perspectives of migrants in Auckland, it might be more relevant and more striking to the audience. Most of our analogies are based on real stories that have been related to us during our storytelling workshops by migrants.

 Renee:  Yes.  And this shows a maturing of the culture, I think.

Sananda: Like the message of the play itself, the idea is to adapt to the new land, without discarding the values of the old altogether.

Renee:  It's a common message in migrant theatre. Common because it needs to be said and explored so often - it’s like an assertion from the community.

Sananda: Yes, and I suppose that’s why the Parsis are a very good and relevant example... they aren’t Hindu and they retained their culture.  They are an integral part of the Indian community as it stands.  They aren’t seen as outsiders because they are different.

Renee:  Do you think that theatre acts as a mouthpiece for the comnmunity?

Well, it’s not just theatre actors, it’s all artists.  Anyone who has a message and a medium to display it: a good film, a good play, a good piece of art – anything.  Art is a great medium, especially the performing arts.

Renee:  I agree!

Sananda:  Personally the reason I wanted to become a director was that I was interested in the fact that I can tell a story through my perspective.  The more I do this, the more I learn that it’s the greater community at work... because your thoughts have been shaped in some shape or form by what you’ve grown up with.

So everyone in the cast/crew is telling the story….they are all mouthpieces... and if they are Indians, they are LOUD mouthpieces!!

Khoj – The Search plays for five shows only at TAPAC, Aug 27 – 30. 100 Motions Road, Western Springs. Thurs- 7.00pm, Fri– 8.00 pm, Sat 4.00pm and 8.00pm, Sun 4.00pm.

Book at or through

Written by

Renee Liang

7 Aug 2009

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

Amber Curreen (Te Reo Māori team), Briar Collard (producer at Te Pou and representing team Pākeha), Edward Peni (Team Samoa) and Renee Liang (Team Canto) find some chairs.
Te Reo Māori, Samoan, and Cantonese
It's a wrap! AWF18 has smashed attendance records, with over 74,000 seats filled across six days at 144 events. Renee Liang completes her three-day marathon with final reflections.
Renee Liang attends Saturday sessions at the Auckland Writers Festival.
The Auckland Writers Festival this year celebrates its 18th year. Renee Liang gives us her highlights.