In Mrs Krishnan’s Party, Kalyani Nagarajan plays the lead role and cooks the audience dinner to boot. What could possibly go wrong?
The idea of cooking for more than 100 people would fill most of us with terror. How about cooking for more than 100 people within a constrained time limit while on stage acting in a play those people have paid to see you in?
No big deal for Kalyani Nagarajan, who’s been pulling off this feat on the regular for a couple of years now. “Everyone thinks it would be a mare to sort out but it’s actually really easy. It’s like at the marae, you just put on a big pot of food.”
Nagarajan plays the title role in Mrs Krishnan’s Party, a loose sequel to the much-loved Krishnan’s Dairy from Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis’s Indian Ink Theatre Company. Set in the back room of said dairy, the play centres around the Hindu harvest festival of Onam and Mrs K’s preparations for a surprise party her lodger James (Justin Rogers) has sprung on her. Central to that, of course, is a lovely big pot of dhal.
“The biggest thing in Indian culture – well, the second biggest thing after religion – is food,” says Nagarajan, whose family comes from the southern state of Tamil Nadu. “I feel like the show wouldn’t have been 100% complete if it didn’t have that key element – the smell, the taste, the colour of it all… it kind of binds the whole show together.
“And it’s so fun,” she adds. “It keeps me present in the moment – I have to chop the onions and garlic, fill up the water to the right amount, all while acting and talking to people.”
Now 24, Nagarajan graduated from Toi Whakaari in 2015 and Mrs Krishnan’s Party is partly inspired by a show she made during her first year at the Wellington drama school, basing her character on her mother.
Jacob Rajan’s mum features too, at least in spirit in form of the dhal Mrs Krishnan makes on stage (the recipe’s at the end of this story). Nagarajan’s take on his mum’s dish is “absolutely delicious”, says Rajan, who co-wrote the play with his Indian Ink co-founder Justin Lewis. “It was an ambitious thing to take on because we had to write it in such a way that we allowed enough time for a meal for basically 170 people to be made,” he explains. “So knowing when that pot is going to go on, how long the rice takes to cook, and then working in all the dialogue and all the action around it too.
“But that was actually a great structural thing for the play. When you have these limitations you have to be a bit more creative.”
There have been mishaps aplenty, including sliced fingers, says Nagarajan, and timing issues are relatively common – during the show’s North American tour earlier this year, the different voltage played havoc with the rice cooker. (The Americans wanted her to wear gloves, but Nagarajan basically said ‘yeah nah’.) “But if the dhal hasn’t cooked, 90% of the audience are willing to wait another five minutes to get it at the end,” she says.
After the show, “everyone kind of hangs around”, says Nagarajan. “Which is nice – you actually stay and talk to people you’ve never talked to before, because food connects everyone.”
“It creates a real sense of community,” adds Rajan. “Whenever you break bread together, something happens between people – you’ve got something to talk about or just something to connect you and create an atmosphere. We knew what we wanted from the story, but the actual feeling in the room afterwards I just find a real joy. It’s a real credit to Kaly and Justin and the way they look after the audience and guide them through this life-changing journey of the characters.”
Rajan is from Kerala on India’s southwest coast, where a sizeable proportion of the population is Christian (the religion has a long history in the region – it’s believed to have been introduced by St Thomas soon after the crucifixion). Onam, the focal point of the play, also originates in Kerala and despite the fact it’s a Hindu festival, Rajan grew up celebrating it.
“It’s that weird thing where the Christians have completely come on board with it,” he says. “My community in Wellington celebrates it, they’re Christian and yet this is a completely Hindu thing, with a demon king and all of the Hindu pantheon of gods, but the Christian community goes, ‘yep, we’re up for that’.
“Basically it’s more about connecting with your village and your family, so all the different religions partake in this festival and it’s a really cool event. Because it’s a harvest, food is a very prominent thing and there’s a whole bunch of dishes that are traditionally made and served*,” he adds.
“It’s celebrating life and rebirth, so I guess there’s a sort of Easter feel to it as well. When you look across religions there are so many commonalities, and that’s what I love about the whole thing. I was really confused about it growing up, being raised Christian – why were we celebrating this? But actually there’s so much more that we have in common than we are different, and that’s a lovely thing too.”
*Auckland’s Ela Cuisine is hosting a 25-dish Onam-focused vegetarian feast this Sunday, 4 August
MRS KRISHNAN’S PARTY DHAL
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- 500g pink lentils
- 3 chopped tomatoes, or ½ tin
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 litre boiling water
- 2 tablespoons rice bran oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 dried red chilli
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
Put the lentils, tomatoes and bruised whole cloves of garlic into a large pot of boiling water and simmer until the lentils are soft (15-20 minutes). Stir occasionally to stop from burning.
Five minutes before the lentils are ready, heat the oil in a frying pan, add the onion and sauté until translucent. Add all the spices except the salt and pepper to the onion and stir for a minute.
Tip the onion-spice mixture into the pot of lentils and simmer for five minutes. Add salt and white pepper. Bonus serving tip from Jacob Rajan: add a knob of butter to each bowl to melt in.
Mrs Krishnan’s Party is on at Auckland’s Q Theatre from 6-18 August and Tauranga’s Baycourt X Space from 23-25 August. More details here.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.