13 Mar 2017

Samaroh – The Great Indian Carnival

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 13 March 2017

A fortune teller, a flower seller, and a dozen villagers breaking into dance – the makings of a great Indian carnival.

Veteran theatre group Prayas have delved into their childhood memories of the sights, smells and sounds of small-town India and hope to bring it all to life in the heart of Auckland’s South-Asian capital – Sandringham Road. With a cast of versatile young actors, their new show Samaroh takes over the Sandringham Road Reserve as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.

Part-festival, part-play, the performance will bring in audiences to walk through the spice and fabric stalls and come face-to-face with the characters that fill the space.

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“It’s more of an audience interactive immersive experience. We’re just trying to recreate what a rustic festival would be like, and we’re just throwing in characters and interruptions and calling upon our audience to interact with us so we can tell the story,” said co-director Ahi Karunaharan.

The characters include travelling drama companies, dancers, musicians, a runaway bride, stolen children and an over-enthusiastic matchmaker. The actors devise their own performances and script, but leave a lot of room to improvise, relying on audience members to play along with the stories.

“The thing with an interactive performance is you need to have rules. Our performers have over the weeks been trained in what kind of questions to ask – open ended questions. For the actors they have the challenge of being as charming and as inviting and make it as safe as possible.”

The show’s other co-director, Sananda Chatterjee, said using the Sandringham Reserve helps them draw on the already rich atmosphere of Indian culture.

“Because of the smells and sounds of Sandringham already, it’s so South Asian there now, so it’ll be quite cool. We’ll be able to do justice to that idea of an Indian carnival,” said Chatterjee.

“What we’re hoping to do is throw so many interesting details that it will constantly be one thing or another throughout the 3 hour period. Not just actors but sellers and vendors, so we’re really trying to recreate the whole festival atmosphere.”

She remembered attending her own Indian carnival many years ago, and the feeling of being transfixed by a cacophony of sound – the rides, the sellers, the people.

“There were so many people and you’re so close together, and you’ve got the food stalls and fortune tellers. It’s mad. You think of any sort of festival or carnival here, and just add lots more people.”

Prayas president Amit Ohdedar initially began performing in plays with a group of friends in 1998, but those plays were all in Bengali. A few years later they decided the stories they performed needed to transcend the language barrier, and Prayas was born in 2005 as an attempt to bring traditional Indian theatre to a wider audience.

“Modern day culture is associated much with Bollywood, but there is so much more to Indian culture and tradition than just Bollywood. Our aim was to portray that,” said Ohdedar.

“The demography of the audience has changed over the years. When we started 70% of our audience was from the Indian community. Now I would say it’s 50/50.”

He said the plays have opened the doors for a new generation of Indian-New Zealanders to embrace the stories they grew up on, and to step into the world of theatre.

“Right from the beginning, I’ve had these young kids coming in, and they are so proud to show where they’re coming from. They’re growing up in a different culture, and in a way this is a way for them to connect with their roots. We are providing them with a platform and I think they take a lot of pride in the learning they take.”

Initially, Ohdedar would direct all the plays himself, but over the years younger theatre practitioners like Ahi Karunaharan and Sananda Chatterjee began stepping up and taking the lead. The company now puts on at least one show a year, drawing full houses and a committed following both from those versed in Indian theatre and those wanting to experience it for the first time.

Samaroh– The Great Indian Carnival will take place from 6-10pm on Saturday March 18 at the Sandringham Road Reserve. It’s part of the Auckland Arts Festival White Night & Whānui programme.