The Coolie Odyssey

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A play by Rajesh Gopie, written with a writer’s grant from the National Arts Council (2002).


Inspired by the 1995 novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandrah, The Coolie Odyssey is a many-layered epic drama that covers various highlights in the history of South African Indians from 1890 to 2002, looking at Indian life, religious ideals and local politics. It tells the stories of a group of men, women and children who initially sign up for seven years indentured labour in what was colonial Natal in 1890 and then become part of the population. The story is recorded by a typing monkey (with memories of previous human incarnations) in the yard behind the house of a descendant living in modern day Durban and the narrative moves back and forth in time and location, from India, to Durban, to a sugar-cane plantation on the Natal north coast. His story unveils the life of Ramlal Kilhari, an indentured labourer, who arrived in Durban in 1888 and follows Ramlal as he searches for identity, belonging and salvation against the backdrop of those pioneering colonial times. The production cast a light on a very influential minority group that was part of the social fabric, but uncertain about their future in the New South Africa at the turn of the new millenium.

Performance history in South Africa

First staged, directed by Rajesh Gopie, at the Grahamstown Main Festival (2002), at the Market Theatre (2003) and at the Baxter Theatre in 2005. Gopie then collaborated with Heinrich Reisenhofer to create a different vision of the play which was mounted in the Playhouse Theatre in Durban at the end of 2005 directed by Reisenhofer. In November 2010 a production again directed by the playwright was staged in the iZulu Theatre at the Sibaya Casino and in April/May 2011 at the Market Theatre.

Translations and adaptations


Go to ESAT Bibliography

[Van Heerden (2008)][1]. p. 135.

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