A Tale of Modern Migration at 'White Night'

Thursday, April 2, 2015
White Night at the Maritime Museum - the Prayas Theatre Company

During the recent White Night activities, the Museum played host to the Prayas Theatre Company, a local Indian theatre company who conceived and performed a modern tale of migration, accompanied by Indian folk music. The group performed several times that evening, to the gathered crowds, including Carolyn Cossey, a Creative Writing student from MIT,  who wrote about the captivating performance she saw during White Night.

“It started with a kiss, between a father, and his daughter. A farewell kiss as she had a travelling bag slung over her shoulder;  it was clear she was going on a journey. The music pulsed, the unmistakeable sound of Indian tabla and sitar. His voice strong against the rising music, the father announced, “The river is curious, constantly, pulled toward the ocean.” And with that, the whole of Prayas Theatre Company was in motion, a riot of colour, a swirl of hot pink, and tangerine orange scarves, and twirling skirts. 

I scanned the group of spectators, scattered around the foyer of the Maritime Museum, all entranced by the sensory overload of the performance happening around them. I thought how even my children’s small country school in the village of Drury offers Indian dancing as a lunchtime club option, and how it is a highlight of any performance occasion. How appropriate that the venue for this performance was the Maritime Museum, a place that celebrates voyagers and explorers. And I thought of our own journey, as a small country at the bottom of the world, to become a modern multi-cultural society. 

There have been Indian migrants in New Zealand since the late 19th century, although initially they were few and far between. The 1881 census identified only 6, all men, three of whom lived in Canterbury, and were thought to be the servants of wealthy English settlers who had lived previously in India. In 1899, the Immigration Restriction Act was passed, up until this time, Indians, as British subjects, had had free access to New Zealand, unlike the Chinese who were classed as ‘Aliens.’ Indian migrants escaping overpopulation, and unemployment with the decline of village industries now had to fill out an application form in a European language. 

By the 1920s there were around 2000 Indians living in New Zealand, and the all-male working population was now supplemented with 142 women, wives who had been sent for, or new brides. On the edge of Auckland, in agrarian Pukekohe, a large Indian community was formed, working in the market gardens which were providing the city with produce. But now, as the economy tightened, there was a major backlash. The White New Zealand League was launched on the slogan, ‘Keep New Zealand a white man’s country.’ The Indians continued to toil in the fields, and progressed to owning their own fruit and vegetable stores. They were banned from joining local growers associations, and right up until the 1950s, there was only one barber in Pukekohe who would cut an Indian’s hair. 

Back at the Maritime Museum, I watch the dancer closest to us. Her jet black hair is long, and swaying. Her skin glows, and her countenance is joyful, belying the concentration of her task. Her hands are held above her head, long elegant fingers, working intricate patterns in the air. The group works its way back to the top of the stairs, a last burst of music, signals the end of the performance. Individually and collectively, the performers bow, enjoying the applause of the appreciative audience. There is a release of energy from the crowd, it seems too short. Intensely caught up in the movement and colour, we are lost without it, and it takes a moment to start shuffling away. 

“Thank you for coming to see us,” says the dancer, hands pressed together at heart’s centre"

With thanks to Carolyn Cossey for writing this article.