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Ahi Karunaharan: Untold Stories

Breathing life into the stories of our ancestors.


Swabhoomi: Borrowed Earth is the newest piece from the Prayas Theatre Company, a company that is dedicated to brightening the stage with new works by the Indian community. I spoke to Director, Ahi Karunaharan about this latest emotive piece that weaves together the stories of Indians living in Aotearoa, from the first to step foot on this land during the Otago gold rushes to those living here today. As the child of Sri Lankan migrants himself, this particular piece has a deep personal connection for Ahi Karunaharan.

“I have a memory of my late father taking me to see a Sri Lankan musical as a child. We had travelled through the hectic stand still traffic and navigated through the chaos of our troubled paradise of a nation into a black box where we disappeared and got lost in another world. Those few hours of escape and magic is what ignited the fire of the performing arts within me.”

Born in the UK, and brought up in Aotearoa, Ahi maintains a strong connection to his South Asian roots. This is especially visible when considering where he chooses to put his creative energies, often found walking in the world of theatre companies that amplify the voices of diverse communities in Aotearoa.

As a son of migrant parents who faced challenges and made big sacrifices for the future of their children, Ahi’s decision to seek a career in a sector that can lack the financial security and stability offered in other professions was not an obvious decision. “The community in which I had been raised in were somewhat perplexed that I would want to pursue something that they would consider as an extra-curricular activity and weekend hobby as a full time profession.” However, it was through the creative arts that Ahi found his voice as a young man and there was no doubt for him that this was the right path.

Within the world of theatre in Aotearoa, Ahi's Sri Lankan heritage comes with its own specific barriers to overcome. Even if it is not something that happens consciously within casting, actors from migrant backgrounds receive less work opportunities than their Pākeha colleagues. Ahi says that “finding opportunities to be considered for work” has been one of his biggest challenges. He goes on to explain, “You never know if you are right or wrong for the role, or good or bad as an actor if you don’t get seen at all. I don’t exaggerate when I say that my Pākeha drama school classmates and colleagues have had more auditions in a month than I have in nine years being out of drama school.” He has persevered, and encourages others in a similar position to do the same. The advice he gives: “Be patient, be curious, be generous. Be willing to sacrifice. Be unafraid of the unknown. Be fearless.” He says that he is most excited “by artists and practitioners breaking boxes and walls that are put upon them” and the voices that he seeks to hear “are those who don’t get the centre stage often.”

Ahi’s newest work focuses on the experience of Indian migrants in Aotearoa. He describes Swabahoomi: Borrowed Earth as a “conglomeration of the many unheard stories of our ancestors.” It breathes life into the stories of the first Indian settlers that arrived to Otago for the gold rush and travels 150 years through time weaving together stories of individual and collective experiences. “Through a kaleidoscopic journey through time we gather the various moments where people have set foot in this whenua and the stories they bring with them.” It doesn’t hold back from exploring the grisly realms of social, political and economic challenges across time including changing immigration policies, the ugly realities of white extremism and present day instability for Indian migrants faced with threats of deportation.

However, Ahi compliments these tough realities with a dose of the light-hearted. “Hope and the heart exists in everything I create and I constantly strive to find that light at the end for our audience to carry with them.” He says that “ultimately Swabhoomi is a story about finding your ground.”

As a country that is made up of such diverse and expansive migrant communities, Sabhoomi: Borrowed Earth honours the journeys of the individuals represented, but it also speaks to a collective journey of so many who have made Aotearoa their home. Ahi explains that connection for him personally, “As a South Asian migrant myself, there is a shared experience that I have with the numerous Indian migrants living in New Zealand. Whilst each of our journey, reasons for travel and the experience may be been different, we all came here to realise a dream. That dream is my personal connection.”

Swabhoomi: Borrowed Earth plays Thursday 25 May – Sunday 4 June at TAPAC, Pt Chevalier


Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

17 May 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.