Almost a decade ago, Melbourne artist Sapna Chandu wondered why chai – proper Indian-style masala chai – was nowhere to be found in Australian cafes, yet the dialled-down Western version, chai latte, was everywhere. It led her to conceptualise a world where India had overtaken Australia and had staged a cultural coup.
The installation, Kwality Chai, which was presented at the 2014 Melbourne Fringe Festival, was an immersive experience where viewers entered a parallel reality, set forty years after India had successfully staged a Y2K IT takeover of Australia and now ruled as a colonial power. In this imagined future, there was still a love of caffeine in Melbourne, but it was masala chai that everyone queued for. Inside the Kwality Chai space, viewers would order chai from someone speaking with an Indian lilt and using hybrid Anglo-Indian phrases, set against an aural landscape featuring the tooting horns of an Indian street. They would drink the tea while listening to a radio featuring R&B and old Bollywood, interspersed with news bulletins discussing events such as, say, an auto rickshaw colliding with a tram, or the Australian prime minister, J.J. Vijayalakshmi, considering extending Indian laws into its new colony. They could pick up a newspaper and read about the challenge to beef-eating laws. What began as an exploration of cultural appropriation ended as one of cultural imperialism – but in this case, in reverse to the usual way it happens.