The Sydney Festival returns this January to its largest line-up of international artists since 2019 –featuring 748 performances traversing 54 venues. Promising to give the city its sizzle with an exhilarating line-up of vibrant ideas, irrepressible creativity, remarkable talent and pure summertime revelry, the festival runs across 25 days from 5-29 January 2023.
One of those exciting performers is Jacob Rajan, who comes to festival in the moving production of Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream as both writer and performer. Melding a dash of Bollywood disco and playful puppetry with thought-provoking musings on the eternal afterlife, and the looming extinction of India’s sacred vultures, of Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream came about almost incidentally while Rajan and his director, Justin, were in Mumbai researching a completely different project.
“There we discovered a city full of life, rich with diverse cultures and stories and alongside that we stumbled upon the Towers of Silence,” says Rajan. “Set amongst some of the most expensive real estate in the world is a vast green area with these forbidden towers where people of the Parsi faith lay out their dead for a sky burial. You don’t burn the bodies, you don’t bury them – you leave them out for the vultures. But what do you do when all the vultures have disappeared? The real-life mystery of India’s vanishing vultures inspired us to write this play and but as with most creative endeavours it brings you face to face with more personal and uncomfortable truths like: I’m not going to be around forever.”
Rajan explains the work is a mischievous meditation on death. Basically, it’s saying avoiding death and choosing to live are not the same thing.
The work takes inspiration from the Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning treatise The Denial of Death which Rajan describes as the creative sign post. “Justin stumbled on it by accident but as soon as he did we had a new lens with which to view not only the imaginative world we created but also the view points of the characters within that world,” he says. “In a nutshell, Becker’s thesis is that humans are the only animals with a conscious understanding that we are going to die. And that unpalatable truth is the unseen engine that drives every good, bad, wonderful or shameful thing we do as a species. Art, culture, religion, science, money, politics – you name it, they are all, at their core, buffers against our dreaded mortality.”
Performing in something a playwright has written can be tricky for some but for Rajan performing is a joy while writing is the hard work part. “I write so that I can perform,” he says. But, he concedes, it is tempting to constantly fiddle with the writing when it’s your own work. “I’m lucky in that Justin is my co-writer and we can check each other on that tendency. We actually coined a phrase during the rehearsal process called ‘locking the writers out of the room.’ There comes a point where you need to just do your best to make what’s on the page work and leave the real re-write till after the preview season. Until after the audience response tells you what you’ve really got in front of you – then you can let the writers back in.”
Born before having left acting school, Rajan’s solo play Krishnan’s Diary in 1997 was a breakout success, with rave reviews and sizeable audiences abroad from its premiere in New Zealand before taking the Fringe First Award at the highly competitive Edinburgh Festival. Since, Rajan has not only starred in and co-created a run of hit theatre productions, but has also been the recipient of the Best Actor award in the 2010 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards, as well as an accolade for acting excellence and was nominated for the Stage Award for Best Actor, also at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Rajan came to theatre through a love of mask so, as a creative, his preference is theatre that is heightened, an amplification of life. “Theatre that sings and speaks with poetic truth,” he says. “The themes that suit that form are the big ones – What is it to live a good life? What is it to be human? What is the nature of love? What is the nature of happiness? How do we face our mortality? Because mask is grounded in archetype there is often an element of the mythic in the characters we like to create but they all express the beautiful, flawed experience of being human. ”
Rajan is also the co-founder of Indian Ink Theatre Company – one of one of New Zealand’s most successful theatre companies with a reputation for ‘total theatre which offers humanity and psychological insight in a package of good plain laughs, luminous performances and brilliant staging’. “We’re guided by the “Serious Laugh” – opening the audience’s mouths with laughter in order to slip something serious in,” he says. “We aim to make theatre that is beautiful, funny, sad and true – to leave an indelible imprint on your heart.”
The company began 25 year ago as a partnership between Rajan, an Indian and Justin Lewis, a New Zealander. Since then they have gathered a team of long-term collaborators, made 11 original shows together and had the great pleasure of performing around the world. Their home is Aotearoa, New Zealand and it’s a long way from the islands to India, jokes Rajan. “We’ve always had to use our imaginations and be led by our curiosity in the subjects we write about so please forgive the artistic licenses we take,” he says. “But we hope that we do justice to the experience we share as humans while celebrating the flavours that make us all unique.”
The wildly versatile Rajan transports audiences to the vibrant chaos of Mumbai for a multi-character one-man show in of Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream. “I dare you not to fall in love with the vulture,” he says.