Yātrā: South Asian theatre company Prayas' 15-year journey

It’s stories that connect us. 

When Amit Ohdedar arrived in New Zealand from Kolkata in 1994, it was stories that connected him with friends in the Indian diaspora – stories that they could tell onstage. 

“We had this passion for theatre,” he said. 

Away from the pressures of Indian work life, they found they had the space to rekindle their passion and in the late 90s Ohdedar and his friends would perform shows in Bengali, their mother tongue. But coming into the new millennium, they wanted to share the richness of South Asian culture with a wider audience.  

Amit Ohdedar

Amit Ohdedar

These were the roots for Prayas, New Zealand’s largest South Asian theatre company officially founded in 2005.  

“As an art form, theatre has existed in India since Alexander the Great who came to India and brought Greek theatre in 230 BC and it's flourished in India since then. So, you've got this wide range of, theatre, of various genre, form, content, stories.” 

When Prayas was first founded, Ohdedar said most of what was known about Indian culture came down to exotic curries and Bollywood movies.  

But now as Prayas celebrates its 15th anniversary, Ohdedar could look back and say he was surprised – and humbled – at how big Prayas and the community around it has grown.  

Not only has he seen the audiences grow in size, but he’s seen new faces come to watch the shows. In the first two or three years, about 70 to 80 percent of the audience would be Indian diaspora or South Asian. Now they make up about half the audience, as audience diversity has grown over the years.  

He’s also seen younger South Asian people, often second-generation migrants, join the theatre company to learn their stories and how they’re interwoven with their identity. 

"[They join] to connect with their own culture because we're telling the stories which are quintessentially South Asian or Indian and to know their own culture that they belong to,” he said. 

“I think there’s some kind of mana they get by practicing this art.”  

Over the last 15 years, Prayas has become more than just a community theatre group – they've cultivated live music, established training programmes, and collaborated with other professional organisations, like the Auckland Theatre Company, to strengthen their skills. 

This change over the last 15 years is reflected in the name of their upcoming show Yātrāwhich roughly translates to 'journey’.   

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Yātrā features a number of stories from more modern Indian and South Asian storytellers.

Celebrating the anniversaryin Yātrā five different directors are bringing eight different snippets from plays by eight writers to The Auckland Performing Arts Centre (TAPAC) from October 1 to 10. 

“It’s a basket of goods,” said Prayas’ Sananda Chatterjee.  

Sananda has been with Prayas since 2005, when her parents decided theatre would make a good hobby for her. Her onstage career didn’t last long – cut short by an unfortunate ankle injury – but she found herself learning the ropes of producing and directing.  

“When we first started on our journey, and the early years, people gravitated towards the company as a way of connecting with the community,” she said,  And yeah, sure, we learned to make some plays in the process. But the real grounding was in that community.” 

Chatterjee has taken on a few roles for Yātrā: she’ll be directing one of the eight segments but is also working as the associate producer and directing the overall ensemble for the play.  

The eight stories within Yātrā come from a wide range of more modern writers, both from India and from diaspora communities.  

[Yātrāwas a way for us to address the fact that when we end up doing one show a year, it's only a slice that we present,” she said. 

“We were looking at our work so far, and we seem to have somehow gotten ourselves into a little box of rural India, we do a lot of stories about the past.”  

Sananda Chatterjee

Sananda Chatterjee

The piece she’s directing, Ten Ton Tongue, is “probably one of the harder pieces”, she said - a monologue from Shards by Gautam Raja that revolves around a woman who was sexually assaulted. 

Yātrā also features stories about language and English being the language of the colonisers, about the patriarchy and how it affects different women, and even about fake news. 

"For me as a more recent migrant, I grew up in a very metropolitan, very, quote, unquote, "westernised India". That was my upbringing, and so [these are] more stories that I see myself reflected in.” 

At the same time, people who were new to South Asian theatre might be surprised at the stories told, she said, especially given a departure from more traditional theatre.   

“And then there might be a whole lot of people - even Indians who have been here for a few generations, like my husband's family - they don't recognise metropolitan India because from where they brought themselves, that's very rural and very rustic,” Chatterjee said. 

Tickets for Yātrā are on sale now. The show runs October 1 to 10 at The Auckland Performing Arts Centre. 

- Asia Media Centre