Tasty Indian treats

Sananda Chatterjee
Balti Kings
Through the Grapevine
Thali is a platter of tasty Indian treats, and therefore a great name for a Fringe show. Renee Liang asks Kiwi-Indian playwright Sananda Chatterjee the fun questions.


Thali is a platter of tasty Indian treats, and therefore a great name for a Fringe show that serves up four modern Indian short plays, opening this weekend.  Sananda Chatterjee is the only Kiwi-Indian playwright among the four writers having their work produced by Prayas. Renee Liang asks the fun questions.


Sananda was one of the very first people I interviewed for Cultural Storytellers, back in 2009.  Since then, both she and I have been busy making stuff.  We meet quite regularly in theatre foyers (meetings of the ‘hi – how are you? Great to see you, good luck for the opening – gotta run!’ variety) and keep up to date with each other’s projects on Facebook.  I was chuffed to see recently that Sananda has a play in the Auckland Fringe, as part of the latest Prayas production Thali, a theatrical platter of short plays. Sananda is the only Kiwi-Indian playwright among the four writers having their work produced. I asked her a few questions.

How did you get involved with Prayas?

Ha!...Prayas and I go back a long way to 2005 - I got involved ushering in the first two seasons of Charandas Chor and inched my way in. I started working with Amit (Ohdedar) on the next play (Terrace, 2007) as the Assistant Director and I haven't looked back really. Since then, I have been involved in the Auckland City Council's collaboration with community groups - Our Street, for Prayas in 2008 and in 2009 we devised our own play, Khoj. I was meant to direct our 2010 endeavour but work took me to Brisbane and when work brought me back to Auckland, I jumped straight back into it. Of course, the Prayas family is always welcoming of its old members, no matter how long they have been away for. I'm really lucky that way!
Is this the first time one of your plays has been performed?

No it's not, I've had at least two other pieces I've co -written. Oh yes, this would be the first I have to take full onus of though, which makes me super nervous!!!! I have worked on Khoj and Our Street before.
Why did you make the leap from directing to writing? 

I wouldn't call it a leap, you know... more diversifying I'd say. I think you should explore all facets. Or at least as many as you possibly can. For instance...I don't think you'll ever see me do the actual acting. But just making sure I understand the processes that go into producing (on the creative side) a piece of theatre. With Thali, I have had the chance to have some dramaturgical input as well... so you know, widening my repertoire essentially.

How did you conceive the idea for Through the Grapevine?

As with any great idea, over drinks!! I have to give credit where it is due - the seed Ahi (Karunaharan, director) planted in my head, I have just fleshed out. He filled me in on his vision, and I put words to it. Luckily, the subject of bringing an age old fable to the modern times has been a long running dream of mine, and I have never been able to pick the right text or find the right occasion for it...Yet! So when you get an opportunity like this, to write for it to be performed at the Fringe festival, I jumped on it. Now it is in Ahi's capable hands to make what he will of it...
What is it like seeing your own work being rehearsed? How are you working with Ahi, the director?

Ahhhh....this is a good question! Actually, I've been staying miles away... I have given the director full reign on the script - I have sat in on it to see if the script needs work at any point, but I didn't want to get attached to it or have the Director side of me take over. you know what they say about too many cooks!

Ahi...I should lie, I don't want it going to his head...hahaha! No jokes apart, he has a very different style to others I've worked with. He comes from a theatrical background, academically, and has a plethora of tools that I have never come across. Some of the techniques and ways of bringing moments and characters out in actors he has used and introduced have blown me away. It helps that he is super chilled out, and really easy to collaborate with.

Let's not forget that we've got another director on this - Monica Mahendru, who up until Rudali, was an actor. This is her first foray into directing as well. Moni has spent a considerable time in India and training in acting. So she brings a methodical way of approaching it. But at the same time, she is super open to anything her cast tells her and is inclusive of other view points, accepting them very well and always trying to incorporate other's opinions.

Both of them working in tandem are really good - some painfully hilarious moments and some moment's of bloody genius. They manage to play off each other really well. I am very lucky to be able to work with these fantastic people as my directors - they are very open to feedback and opinion from me. I am their, erm...what's the word...'script consultant'! Make whatever you will of that! I am also working with both closely on several aspects -such as the soundscapes, characters, dialogue delivery and some bits of movement, as and when they need.  
Is there such a thing as an "Indian" play?

Hmmm... If culture is what you make of it, then the Indian'ness' of a play is up to whoever is the audience! Of course, wherever there is the little Bollywood aspect - the play becomes innately Indian - you know the song and dance of it all, the colourful costumes, the loudness! Sometimes the settings make them unequivocally Indian...sometimes the stories couldn't be removed from the context of the country. But you know, my theory is that you could potentially take anything and set it anywhere, and you just have to tweak the little bits. For instance, Balti Kings which is one of our shorts from Thali, is set in Birmingham, it could be called Curry Kings and be set in Sandringham - wouldn't change the storyline and the driving force behind it. And my belief is that it would be fine with people of a different ethnicity as well! But it is that theory by Stuart Hall you know - meaning is not simply fixed by the sender, the message is never transparent and the audience is not a passive recipient of meaning. So, even if we try to make it 'non Indian' we have no way of determining that is how it is taken up by our audience. We try to produce a range, so as to not get pigeon holed, and hope for the best! Not to heavy I hope? Ha!
Do you subvert audience expectations in Thali?

That's assuming they have expectations?! Aahaha! Well, we will always try different things and let's not forget, this is the Fringe... so we're going with a different format. I just hope they take away something new, something exciting and still get the Prayas quality that would be enough I think!
Prayas has evolved a lot over the last few years - from a small community group with the mission of bringing classic Indian plays to English speaking audiences, to an established theatre company, resident at TAPAC, which regularly draws a sell-out multicultural audience. What's on the horizon?

Ya, Prayas is hot right now hey?! Well TAPAC and Prayas are looking to collaborate on a re work of Charandas Chor around May/June -still in the ideation phase. The other exciting project is a second season of Prayas' critically acclaimed Rudali from 2012 - we were invited by the Edge to run it at The Herald Theatre, sometime further on in the year, as part of their STAMP program. I imagine that would be around October, keep your ears and eyes peeled!
What are you working on next yourself?

Good question Renee! I am working on finding the balance between work and play right now (see what I did there? :)). In all seriousness though, as I mentioned earlier, I have recently moved back from Brisbane, settling into a new 'day' job and got wrapped up in Thali about 3 days after I landed! So I haven't had the chance to think about it quite yet! But I do have a couple of ideas kicking about in my head, so once the Fringe ends for Prayas, I'll hopefully have some time to work on my own thing. I have been lucky and grateful that I have had Prayas' undying support and faith, but whatever come you'll be one of the first to know. WATCH THIS SPACE!!

Thali – a theatrical platter of short Indian plays

3 Mar – Fri 8 Mar
TAPAC, 100 Motions Rd, Western Springs - Buy Tickets – 09 845 0295, All Ages.

Written by

Renee Liang

28 Feb 2013

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.

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