Play celebrates Indian-African history

14 April 2011

Indians first came to South Africa as indentured labourers 150 years ago. The Coolie Odyssey, a new play running at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, celebrates that long history.

Rajesh Gopie, the writer and director, also wrote the multi-award winning play Out of Bounds, which debuted at the Market Theatre in 1999, telling the story of a South African Indian family during and after apartheid.

In The Coolie Odyssey, the plot unfolds as the storyteller, an extraordinary monkey with memories of previous human incarnations, types up on an old typewriter the life of Ramlal Kilhari, an indentured labourer who arrived in Durban in 1888.

With exciting stage sets and costumes that transport the audience to another era, the actors immerse themselves in the characters.

The story begins in the 1860s, when the poverty-stricken Kilhari family decides to risk life and limb and head off to the promised land. Natal, they are led to believe, is a land of honey and milk.

Along with many other Indians, Kilhari left the land of their birth, hoping for a better life. They came to Natal as indentured labourers to work in the cane fields. To entice them, they were promised a safe place to live with their families and proper food.

However, on the ship Kilhari found that conditions were not as pleasing as he had imagined they would be. He was separated from his pregnant wife, raising doubts in his mind about the journey.

Arriving in South Africa, Kilhari was greeted by sour milk. It was much different from what he had expected, and life was not as golden as promised. He had always dreamed of being a writer and a dancer, but in this new land his dreams faded away and he lost himself in alcohol.

The play’s background music is sung live by Mumbai star Anuraag Dounidyal.

“The show is wonderful,” said Londiwe Dube, a regular at the Market Theatre. “I liked the music. The acting is superb. It also helped me with a clear understanding of the Indian culture as well as their background.”

On at the Market until 8 May, tickets for The Coolie Odyssey are available via Computicket as well as at the box office. On Tuesdays, they are R66; for shows on Wednesday and Thursday, tickets are R95; on Fridays and Saturdays they are R160; and on Sundays they cost R120.

Source: City of Johannesburg