Story of Indian indenture migration forgotten: South African playwright

By Shubha Singh, IANS,

New Delhi : South African playwright-director Rajesh Gopie has returned to India with his new production, “Coolie Odyssey”, about Indian indenture migration to Natal in the 19th century. He says it is a forgotten part of history and so there is a need to tell the story.

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“Indians are an integral part of South African society. They were part of the freedom struggle but got marginalized after the end of apartheid,” according to Gopie. The play is about coming to terms with issues of identity and marginalization in post-apartheid South Africa, he said.

There have been three performances of “Coolie Odyssey” in Delhi, partly coinciding with the just concluded Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.

The play grew out of the need to address Indian issues in South Africa and to mark the 150th anniversary of Indian arrival in Natal Nov 10, 2010.

“There was no history reflecting me – that is the South African Indian – in South Africa or the world. The school history books only state that Indians came to Natal in 1860 and Mahatma Gandhi came to South Africa in 1893,” said Gopie.

His earlier production, “Out of Bounds”, was performed in India early last year. “Out of Bounds” had won accolades in South Africa and Nelson Mandela had sought a private performance.

The new play opens in a present-day setting at the Naidoo home in South Africa when a monkey gets shot by accident. The injured monkey finds an old typewriter and begins typing out the story of its earlier human incarnation.

The monkey relates the tale of its human self, Ramlal Kihari, his wife and her two brothers, who decide to migrate to Natal. When his wife dies on board the ship carrying them to Natal, Ramlal loses his senses.

The play brings to life the conditions of the indenture and how the workers struggled to find a meaning in their lives in those harsh colonial conditions. It juxtaposes the monkey’s tale with the Naidoo family’s responses to the unfolding drama of the story revealed by the frantic typing.

“The subject has been in my mind for 15 years. I have written four versions of the play in the past 10 years till I completed the final version in September last year,” said Gopie.

The subject of indenture continued to trouble Gopie, as this part of history is not well-known in the country, even among the descendants of indentured workers.

“Coolie Odyssey”, in its earlier version, had been performed at the prestigious National Art Festival of South Africa a few years ago.

South African theatre is mainly dominated by black-white issues in the country’s multiracial society and so it became important for the playwright-actor to perform the story for South African theatre.

“The story of indenture migration when Indians were brought under five-year contracts to work on sugarcane plantations is practically unknown among the younger generation of South African Indians. It is not a subject that has been explored deeply though the sufferings of the Indians in South Africa continued for a long time. The suffering continued even after the indenture system ended due to apartheid regulations,” Gopie explained.

With music and imaginative sound and light effects, “Coolie Odyssey” tackles a serious, even tragic, subject in a way that its sharp wit and lighter moments make the pathos and tragedy of the story into an engrossing play.

The three performances of “Coolie Odyssey” in Delhi were followed by a performance each in Kolkata and Mumbai. The performance in Kolkata marked the inauguration of the Indenture Memorial at Garden Reach, the point from where indentured workers began their journey.

(Shubha Singh can be contacted at [email protected])