‘DID YOU GET PAID?’

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That is the one question comedian Ashwin Segkar gets asked by his parents after every gig.

Moving away from the usual storylines and anecdotes, Australian-Indian comedian Ashwin Segkar is bringing a unique technique at the upcoming Melbourne Comedy Festival. Cultivating Rasa, the ancient Indian drama technique used in Sankrit drama about 1500 years ago, Segkar will rework it on modern stand-up comedy and theatre. Segkar hopes to take the old Indian artistic idea of manipulating the mood of the audience. It has been said of Segkar, that he has it all: ‘funny lines, creativity, intelligence, humility, and huge audience appeal’. In an exclusive chat with The Indian Weekly, Segkar talks about his craft, and more.

What made you take up comedy?
It’s fun. You get to share your ideas about life and make people laugh. And you have something that you can keep doing into your old age long after your knees and bladder have given way. The same isn’t true of indoor cricket. Comedy was also an escape from my office job. It doesn’t pay as well. In fact, you often pay to do it, say, travel to a pub in the middle of nowhere, buy a parmigiana for dinner and then on to stage for five minutes. But it’s more creative and has led into work in broadcasting and MCeeing events. So, it can lead to an income if you’re lucky and put some work in.

Elaborate on the use of Rasa in modern stand-up comedy.
Rasa is about striking a particular mood in the audience. In India that was done using classical dance, theatre, costuming, colours, gestures and music. Stand-up and story-telling are about using your words to draw people into a particular mood instead. So I do that in the show and support it by using primal sounds and short bits of theatre to draw people into one of the eight moods that India’s seers and artists believed were at the heart of human life.

How does it connect with the wider audience given that people’s understanding of certain culture can be quite limited?
Because I left India when I was one I grew up with western culture, so I try to use the tools of this culture (for instance, black symbolising sadness) to move the audience into the eight major moods that the Sanskrit dramatists worked with. These include fear, jealousy, mirth, fury, compassion, disgust, heroism and wonder. But I weave through them with a mix of emotion and humour.

So how would you describe your comedy style?
It’s comedy about life’s strange bits and the meeting of eastern and western cultures.

Do you find it easy to draw materials from your Indian background?
Yes, it’s a culture with so much to say about ethics, marriage, cooking, religion, ageing, love, family, work and the big questions of life – with quite different answers to the west. So, there’s a lot of material to draw on.

Do millennials understand your jokes?
I hope so. It’s hard to generalise, but younger audiences seem to respond more to surrealism than older audiences. And they’re naturally more sensitive about jokes on race, gender and identity as social attitudes have changed quite a bit since the ‘70s and the ‘80s. The brutality of stand-up though is you get exposed to audiences of very different age groups and backgrounds so you quickly realise when you’re being irrelevant to them. I try to draw on everyday life and tell the truth so that it connects with people whatever their age or sensitivities.

Any challenges you foresee performing in Melbourne?
I love it. Although I live in Brisbane, Melbourne is more culturally diverse so it seems to work well for the type of culture-themed comedy I do. My comedy is sometimes a little dark and blunt but it always on the side of the minority community I’m talking about. However, because the audiences in Melbourne are more politically correct than Brisbane, it can make them warier of those darker jokes before they realise you’re making a fair point that’s worth saying. So that’s a style issue I’ve been getting used to, but it’s my second year coming to Melbourne for the festival, so should be ready for it this year.

Tell us about your background and how you perceived comedy growing up in an Indian family and culture?
I was born in Kerala. My dad came from a coconut plantation and had trained up as a doctor and mum was a bit of a city girl living in Calicut. They met outside a college, got married and shortly after I was born we migrated. We moved around a fair bit for dad’s work and I ended up growing up in England, Australia, Malaysia and rural New Zealand before coming to Australia after university. I’d studied journalism and commerce at university because I thought I could get into writing for a career but made a few uninspired career choices. I ended up working in a liquid fertiliser factory in an industrial estate far south of Brisbane, writing brochures, getting bossed around a lot and watching the days slip away.
I have one brother who lives over in London, he’s doing very well and has a fun family life over there. I was into comedy and drama at school, but I wouldn’t say there was a lot at home. I think Indian culture can be a little more serious with the infusion of spirituality, family obligations, conservative social attitudes and the pressure to get ahead and make good money. But we need a safety valve to balance that out and I think stand-up is right for the job.
My parents most frequent question after a gig is still, ‘did you get paid’? The answer is usually no. Although comedy helped me find a role as a fill-in radio presenter on the ABC and I think they at least appreciate comedy’s ability to land you work that isn’t comedy.

What would you say the purpose or role of humour is in society?
Just to make life more fun. And also point out uncomfortable truths. You’ve got a captive audience for whatever you want to say about life as long as you can make it funny. It also allows you to express darker thoughts as the context of a comedy night also lets you say things that would otherwise get you fired at work.

Indian society is quite prudish with a list of topics considered taboo. Do you feel Australia gives you the freedom to touch those topics?
It does. Australia’s excellent like that. Although when a society is prudish, there are more topics where you can skirt the line and get good laughs, so I think Indian comics are in an enviable position that way. When a society is so liberal that there are no lines to cross, there are also fewer ways to shock and prod them into amusement. Australia does have its lines too regarding race, gender and the like. There’s this idea that in comedy the laugh comes when you make a benign violation. You violate a social norm enough to titillate, but not so much that they turn against you and don’t laugh. I think the hardest part of stand-up is learning where that line is and trying to hit it repeatedly. Especially when your audience is both Indians and non-Indian Australians who have very different lines to begin with.

Who are your comedy idols?
Idols might be a strong word even for an Indian like me. But I do enjoy watching Chris Rock for his energy, Stewart Lee for his deadpan surrealism, some local comics including Dusty Rich and Lindsay Webb for their incredible crowd work. At the moment, I try to watch more drama and YouTube videos and read articles and essays online or talk to my parents about their childhoods in India or my friends about their lives. I’m finding comedy comes from trying to spin real life in your own funny way, rather than trying to emulate other comics, no matter how much you enjoy their work.

As told to Indira Laisram

(Ashwin Segkar will be performing from April 6 to April 19 at Tasma Terrace, 6 Parliament Place in Melbourne.
www.comedyfestival.com.au/2020/shows/rasa