In My Own Words: Ahi Karunaharan

Image of Ahi Karunaharan

Kia ora! My name is Ahi and I was born in the UK and raised in Aotearoa, New Zealand. I am the child of Sri Lankan migrants and have spent close to fifteen years working as a professional in the arts industry as an actor, writer, director, producer and composer. Like many other sectors, the landscape of New Zealand’s arts and culture industry is rapidly changing but right now we need to step up and start stepping ahead. 

We need organisations that amplify the voices of diverse communities. We need diversity on our stages (and backstage too) and we ‘need’ these changes not just because they are important - but because they are essential to shaping the future of how we perceive ourselves as New Zealanders.

It might be hard to believe but my first paid job as an actor was playing the role of a terrorist – but not just any terrorist, I didn’t even get a name! This was the state of the arts in 2001 in New Zealand when stereotypes were so entrenched. In 2017 things have changed – but not enough. My responsibility is to be a catalyst and this is reflected in the choices I make. I actively choose my actors as well as the creatives with whom I collaborate, and equally, invest time and energy into exploring how the stories we tell are reflected back to our audiences. This has led to new plays, new conversations, new voices and new audiences for theatre in New Zealand.

As an actor I fight against the stereotyping of our community on screen and stage and the exoticising of our culture. Artistic control on how we are represented is vital because it enables us to articulate our experiences to create a space for the many unheard stories of our migrant community. This is our responsibility, as artist but also as active citizens.

Ask yourself: why should our audiences come to the theatre unless they see themselves reflected on stage and in every aspect of a theatre or a company’s work? Diversity has real value: it can genuinely invigorate our economy and be a spur to creativity and entrepreneurship.

My latest show Swabhoomi: Borrowed Earth is produced by Prayas Theatre Company, an organisation that is dedicated to brightening the stage with works by the Indian community. This work weaves together the stories of Indians living in Aotearoa, from the early settlers who came during the Otago gold rush to those living here today - and with a massive cast of 19 actors the show explores the full gamut of experience of Indian migrants in Aotearoa.

As a country that is made up of such diverse and expanding migrant communities, Swabhoomi: Borrowed Earth exemplifies my commitment to the arts and the community: honouring the journey of the individuals stories but also speaking to a collective narrative for so many who have made Aotearoa their home.

Swabhoomi: Borrowed Earth plays Thursday 25 May – Sunday 4 June at TAPAC, 100 Motions Road, Western Springs. Bookings.