Kwality Chai Brings a Cross-Cultural Hipster World to the Fringe


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Set in an alternative reality where India has taken over Australia, installation art work Kwality Chai brings an immersing and engaging experience of a cross-cultural hipster world to the Melbourne Fringe Festival.

Melbourne-based artistic director Sapna Chandu tells Peril Magazine she has always had a strong interest in the arts, while balancing her passion with a career in dentistry.

“Both my parents are doctors. Growing up, you can ask a lot of Indian kids, they’re told, ‘You can be a doctor, a dentist or a lawyer,’ pretty much. That was it… I’m still a practicing dentist,” she said.

“I had started doing short courses [in the arts] while I was doing dentistry because I knew that it wasn’t my passion. I wanted to find out what it is that I was interested in, I tried everything from fashion design to print making to photography, all sorts of stuff.”

As well as frequent visits to her extended family in Bangalore, Sapna has traveled extensively around the world and says that her globetrotting has influenced her creative pursuits.

“I did quite a bit of travel overseas for four years, a lot of South America and a lot of Europe. I was very lucky, very first world, but I thought may as well see what I can and understand more about the world around me.”

Her latest show is a work two years in the making and the idea began with an urge to do yoga that came from a trip to India.

“I’ve never been attracted to Yoga necessarily, but when I went back to India I was doing this course with all these uncles and aunties in a community centre and it felt really right for me. It felt culturally correct.”

“I came back wanting to do yoga with an Indian teacher and I couldn’t find one. So I started thinking a lot about how products of culture are appropriated and then evolve and then become part of a new culture in a different form. Where does tradition lay and what’s actually authentic? Because that is a theme that runs through a lot of my work: the concept of authenticity.”

The show itself comes in the form of a public installation with a focus on ‘masala chai’ a traditional Indian tea beverage.

“It sort of bothered me that I couldn’t get good authentic Indian chai in Melbourne and that often if I would have chai at a hippie festival or something like that it would always be with soy and honey, which is just not traditional. I mean Indians, if you say soy they’re kind of like ‘what?’’

On her creative process and artistic direction, Sapna explains:

“I would say for my particular work, it’s an intervention into everyday life. So I’m using the space and honouring its function in some way by placing a cart in this kind of archway which invites pop-up culture, which is part of Melbourne culture so that’s all very familiar to people.

“I’m placing something are quite familiar which people understand, but then setting up all of these other aspects which speak of something which is uncanny. Uncannily familiar, but at the same time really quite distinctly different and so I hope that kind of alternate reality that I’m trying to create will unfold through all these different elements.’

“I’m really interested in the collaborative process, so coming to a group of people with an idea and everybody sort of working together and bringing their experience and background to create something that’s well and truly beyond me as an individual. It makes it a lot more difficult but totally worth it.’

Kwality Chai is Sapna’s second work at the Fringe and her 2010 entry Short Stories #1 was well received, even drawing the attention of The Age much to the delight of her supportive family and friends.

“I think that Fringe offers a really great platform for emerging artists and artists doing things a little bit differently. They’re incredibly supportive, it’s really great to do something that’s really ambitious and know that you have the support of these people.”

Despite having established her presence as an artist, Sapna is still hesitant to place a label on her work.

“I’ve probably got too many ideas all in one project but I guess that’s just how I work.

“Other things that are really a focus for me is this concept of authenticity and what that is, semiotics, how we communicate through words and gesture and how that all has meaning and how words can be placed in different scenarios to create new forms of expression like slang.”

Sapna talks about recently becoming a mother and trying to find a balance between her family, her dental and her creative work. When asked what she sees for her artistic future, Sapna replies:

“Something really, really simple, something that is more focused on myself making the work. I have a family and when there’s a big production it’s quite difficult and I guess in many ways I’ve proved to myself that I can do things big, so now it’s time to see if I can do things small.’


Kwality Chai runs at Flinders Street Station from Thursdays to Sundays until October 5th, for more information head to the Fringe page here.


Kevin Luc

Author: Kevin Luc

Kevin luc was born in Melbourne and studies journalism at RMIT