Reflecting on Prayas Theatre Company’s storytelling through the years
For a long time, I’ve had a desire to return to the vibrant community that Prayas Theatre Company introduced me to as an eight year old. I had a small role in their production called Our Street, and while I don’t fully remember the rehearsals, or how I ever mustered the courage to act in front of hundreds of people, I’ll always remember feeling a warm, deep interconnectedness to my South Asian community. Feeling nostalgic about a moment is one thing, but when it’s intertwined with a longing to regain a cultural connection to who you are, this entirely changes how you frame your past. Nostalgia then, inherently, becomes tied to a sense of hopeful becoming. For me, as I ponder over how to make sense of my identity in the world, but also for Prayas, who grow and evolve as storytellers through consciously reflecting on their history.
Prayas is a not-for-profit South Asian theatre group that has been delivering productions to New Zealand since 2005. They most recently finished their anthology show First World Problems 3.0 last month, which featured a short collection of compelling plays exploring themes relating to toxic masculinity, loss and familial conflict.
When sitting down with Sananda Chatterjee and Ahi Karunaharan from Prayas, they somehow transport all of the excitement and promise from the stage directly into our intimate conversation. Within their individual creative practices, the goal to engage with the wider collective is powerful and clear. As Ahi says, “The three foundations to anything I do: what do you want to say, who do you want to say it to, and what do you want them to feel.”
Ahi’s words are a reminder of the fact that even when storytelling ends at the curtain call, the representation of South Asian experiences on stage can traverse throughout time. These narratives can likely play a part in shaping how our community is remembered, and maybe even more importantly, in how we come to remember ourselves.
You guys have had an incredibly busy few weeks! Your third installation of First World Problems has come to an end recently…. how are you feeling?
Sananda: (laughs). Relieved? After every show, I think. But also, satisfied and joyous in how it was received mostly. It’s always hectic in the last two weeks leading up to the show, and then once the show starts, there’s time to sit and think about things that could have been better. There’s always a ton of learning that I’m processing once the show has opened.
Ahi: I’m feeling reflective and curious about the future because always, every time you’re rejoicing, well… what does the next iteration look like? So looking back, you have to look forward.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve really witnessed a change in Prayas’s storytelling style. How do you think storytelling within the company has evolved over the years?
Sananda: Well, I think it’s just a matter of who has been telling the stories and where the company first started. Since the original motto was to bring Indian theatre to wider New Zealand audiences in English, it lived in a classical theatre world and of course the people making were also part of that. They grew up doing theatre that way, which in itself is quite varied. When you start in folk theatre, it is usually performed on the streets and performed by the community. So then, bringing that to a Western landscape already changes something about the storytelling. Up until a certain time we were doing it in a straightforward way, you know, “scene change, lights going off, scene moves around.” Then it was a big contribution that Ahi brought in, to start really using the wider ensemble to build parts of the story that didn’t have to be told with words.
Ahi: We look at Prayas as a structure: the people that come are like water that passes through a river. We have to serve what the nation or the zeitgeist is requiring of us, but also the people in the company. We start getting a bit more confident in our ability, so we get a little bit more braver I guess in the stories we want to push, propel, or kind of probe our community into having.
First World Problems in particular has played an important role in representing my experiences as a South Asian woman living in New Zealand. I think your feminist pieces in particular have been able to create this almost tangible, frantic feeling that hauntingly encapsulates the dangers that women feel in their everyday lives. What has it been like increasingly incorporating feminist theatre into your work?
Sananda: I feel like my sensibilities as a feminist have evolved… so, when I’m telling a story, that is my experimentation in how we can incorporate more of my experiences. For instance, in Yātrā when we were doing Ten Ton Tongue, I really wanted to experiment with the idea that even though it’s one person’s story, it actually speaks to a whole bunch of different people. South Asian theatre is not averse to feminism; in India it has come a long way. However, we haven’t picked those stories to tell, because you kind of have to step back as a migrant to present works of a certain kind. Maybe initially we were always looking at who’s the audience, and who do we speak to. So with First World Problems, I think we’re getting a bit braver in saying “okay, well, I want to speak to the same audience but here’s something different.”
In reflecting on the company’s history, do you feel like there is a particular show that has acted as a defining moment in Prayas’s journey or even within your own personal journey as writers and directors?
Ahi: I’m going to choose Swabhoomi as my own personal work, that I kind of facilitated. The reason why that was really defining and special for me is because everybody else contributed towards making that. It had multiple narratives, the entire company kind of devised that work. In bringing our conversations together, it really rooted it in Aotearoa. It was looking at our stories from the lens, from looking back or looking forward, it is from the land that we stand in. In a way, it really acknowledged tangata whenua because the play starts with a karakia, and also starts with a young Bengali man who jumps ship to meet a Māori woman. So in a way, arriving in Aotearoa and literally and metaphorically digging into the earth and putting our roots in. For me, that’s a defining moment in my artistic practice because I got to play, and test and try out a whole bunch of stuff. But also in a way, documenting the Indian migrant story in a large form and in a published text form, which means our stories don’t just disappear into the ether, they stay.
What would be the greatest challenges that you’ve encountered in establishing yourselves as a theatre company in Auckland?
Sananda: I think the challenges are like waves or waterfalls- you go past one and the next one just shows up. I love that saying, “we are beyond butter chicken and Bollywood.” That is a huge barrier that we have to constantly navigate because people exoticise anything that they don’t understand, the “other,” you know.
Ahi: It is challenging because I think different people have different visions and wants for what they think Prayas needs to be or should be: the community and our makers and our creative sector. Because there is such a lack of representation on our stages and our screen, everyone looks to Prayas to be the space, the beacon, the one-stop point they can all come to, to give everything that it needs. And we don’t have the resources to be able to do all of that.
I know the hectic period has just come to an end for you guys, but can you tell us a little bit about any upcoming projects we can look out for?
Ahi: Prayas is catching up tomorrow to have a team building session to talk about our South Asian connection to the Treaty. The next part is about what we imagine for the future of Prayas—where do we want to be, and then what are the steps we need to take. We do have a major show coming up, around September!
To delve deeper into the history of Prayas, visit www.prayas.co.nz to read their blog, explore their past works, and find out more about the team who are responsible for 16 years of storytelling.
Photo: Swabhoomi: Borrowed Earth, Photographed by Julie Zhu