The force of truth and political theatre: Prasanna

Issue No: 127

Prasanna has always intrigued and inspired me. His theatre career spans several decades and includes seminal productions such as Cupid’s Broken Arrow, Agni Barkha, Dekho Dragon Hindustani, Uttara Ramcharitram, and Akhri Kitab. He embodies a rare balance of energies. His life of firebrand political activism seamlessly dovetails into a refined aesthetic and directorial sensibility. Intellectually towering yet personally humble, his work both in the theatre and outside of it, has been ground breaking.

As a student in college I was an avid amateur participant in his theatre workshops. Many years later I was awed by his involvement with Charaka and Desi, a rural women’s co-operative producing and retailing handloom weaves. Bangalore at the time was being ravaged by an influx of business process outsourcing industries operating with little or no regulation. My interest in immaterial labour, such as that of call centre workers, led me to study classical labour movements. Charaka is a case study in things done right and remains a shining example of a contemporary social experiment that succeeded, creating a thriving rural economy, livelihoods and dignity of labour. Prasanna’s Gandhian khadi-spinning ashram in Bheemanakone, near Heggodu demonstrates the viability of sustainable living practices. His most recent campaign, fronted by the Gram Seva Sangha, successfully took on the blanket GST implementation in defence of handloom weavers who would be adversely impacted by the tax. The agitation also included the performance of a play Tayavva, a free adaptation of Brecht’s The Mother, among other activities. In his steadfast intellectual journey, he also published a book titled Indian Method in Acting. The publication is a novel experiment in situating Stanislavskian ideas into Indian performative idioms, and developing an indigenous vocabulary to describe and conceptualize actor training.

Prasanna on a hunger strike as part of Tax Denial Satyagraha Pic courtesy Gram Seva Sangha

I managed to meet him during the GST satyagraha in Bengaluru. As a testament to his energy, he took time away from the hunger strike to give two interviews. I sat in on a conversation between Prasanna and Moodnakodu Chinnaswami, a Kannada poet and Dalit activist. Their debate centered around sustainability and sustainable living with the village as the locus of transformation. Their conversation sounded like a textbook debate between a Gandhian and an Ambedkarite, and after a short break I was able to talk to Prasanna.

RGK: Many of us working in the theatre today feel a tension between our art and our activism. Can you speak a little bit about this tension?

Prasanna: This crisis that you talk about, the crisis that a lot of theatre people, a lot of artists, are facing today – started with art becoming a commodity. The effects of this commodification are felt most strongly in the theater. Unlike other mediums theatre is a very attractive medium, because theatre people use their own body. The expression in theatre is semiotic, and not just intellectual. It is the most potential medium. And they commodified it! They brought in film, television and serials. Today there is no separation between theatre and money, theatre and the market. So with this crisis, a lot of theatre people became uncomfortable. They didn’t mind becoming marginalized, they didn’t mind producing their plays for small communities. They didn’t mind going into schools and working with children. But what they did mind was the fact that, what they were doing in the theatre, was being misused by some idiot capitalist.

I tried to handle this crisis for about two decades by actually training young actors. But then drama school itself became a television or cinema training center. Drama school stopped giving enough focus on vachika, angika and on drama itself. There was a lot of bullshit improvisation. There was a lot of letting your angst come out somehow. Either it was angst or sex that provided quick audiences and we theatre people went into that.

So I said let me go into real life. That is when I decided to go into the village.  And started working with handloom weavers. The handloom weaver, or the potter or the cobbler, they are our cousins, and we have unfortunately forgotten this. Artists and artisans, the artist and the craftsperson are cousins. Even today in our folk art, they are the same. It is the artisan, who during the lean period performs or sings a song or writes a poem. That link has been completely damaged and what I am trying to do is re-establish that link. Today I am sitting on a fast, so that under the GST regime all handloom products should be tax exempt. There should be zero tax on handmade products. Why? Because I don’t want my cousins to die! They are poor cousins but very rich culturally. We are killing them. What is Mr Modi or Mr Siddahrammiah gaining out of this? It is only the market gaining.

In your conversation with Chinnaswami just now, you spoke about how GST will “ring fence” artisans into a marginal space…

The real is being ring fenced and the virtual is being propagated. The ring fencing that you are seeing most acutely in the village, seems to tell the small craftsperson, “Alright you pot makers, all right you cobblers, you just stay in the village. Stay in the village heart. Hum karenge. Hum pura desh or vishva ko chalayenge. Hum market ko chalayenge. (We will do it. We will run the entire country, the world and the market).” It’s the same bullshit. We are not going to allow this to happen. If it means that I have to stop producing plays, I don’t care.

What would your advice be to young theatre people just beginning their journey? How do they orient themselves politically? There seem a vast array of choices and camps to choose from… Ambedkarities, Gandhians… not to mention the various buzz-words out there… It can be confusing.

We are faced with discordant notes. We have been taught to look at everything in a discordant way, in a divided way. We have been taught that looking at anything holistically is wrong! For example, for my cousins in the folk theatre there is no distinction between morality and theatre. There is no distinction between God and theatre. When a folk performer performs, he is both performing a religious or a dharmic act and an entertainment. This marriage between entertainment and dharma is so vital and we have lost that link.

Today a theatre person does not know why he or she is performing. We should seriously ask ourselves this question. There is a very simple answer. The theatre person is holding the morality of the society aloft. The theatre person is a critic. But today what should they be criticizing? We have to criticize this discordancy, this fencing off of anything that is real and natural. We have to be talking about it, producing plays about it, singing about it. I think people have started doing this, so I’m not criticizing theater people. Because poor fellows they have to have their two meals! In spite of all these problems, theatre people are doing this. But society is not recognizing this. The society does not want to come to your play if you are not showing them your thighs or presenting some bullshit angst.

So on one hand there is this theatre of gratification and commodification, but on the other hand there is ideologically-driven theatre. It is often the case that agitprop or agenda-based theatre has little aesthetic or artistic merit. That’s not much of a choice.

No no. I am saying we should become Kabir all over again. Kabir was a practitioner and a saint. Theatre people should not feel shy of taking on this. We are shy and feel we are illiterates, but it is good that we are illiterates. We should not shy of become a Ravidas or Kabir. My play should do exactly what Kabir tried to do. He was also shunned while he was alive. Who cares for a weaver? Even in the fifteenth century. But we should do exactly what they did and not bother about how society will receive it. Tomorrow society will realise it was the theatre people who stood up for truth, when everybody else was chasing entertainment, money, and the market. Theatre people stood their ground. Isn’t this a great complement one can have from society, or from the gods?

Could you tell us a little bit about your contemporaries, especially when you just began working in the theatre, coming out of drama school (NSD). What was the situation like in Karnataka at the time?

Look we were all very lucky. Me and my generation. Bansi Kaul, Raina… we were post-Baba Karanth-ji. BV Karanth-ji was elder to me. We were lucky in the sense that when I came out of drama school in 1975, I arrived in an emergency-ridden Karnataka. I was not political in a real “party” sense. But we were all drawn to politics because of the emergency. And we used to go on a motorbike quietly to some party secretary of the Marxist party and we used to discuss things. And then we did plays. You see the 75 – 80 period when we did plays was an amazing time. Because we did street plays for the sake of the poor people who were trapped in the emergency, but at the same time we also did serious theatre, or what you would call the proscenium theatre, the 90 minute play. So we did both the 20 minute street play, and the 90 minute artistic theatre. And that is when I did my best productions. That is when I wrote my best work.

So I am lucky and I want you people to be lucky. Luck happens when you make an effort. See after the 80s, the smiling faced Rajiv Gandhi came to power in Delhi and the even more smiling faced Ramakrishna Hegde came to power in Karnataka. They were the ones who took away the entire artistic crowd, and made them into the zonal cultural center heads or academy presidents and members. And we did not know how to fight them. They would come to you, they were natural, they started treating you with respect. So in some way Indira Gandhi was a better thing because at least she had put the emergency in place! Though I have seen her in her better days, when she used to come and watch plays.

Whatever the case, it was in the 80s, on the one hand when you had these smiling-faced politicians, on the other hand all the channels started coming up. Thirdly, suddenly actors started getting money in Bombay. The crisis for me started then, that is when I said all right I don’t want to get into cinema and television. I don’t want to go to Bombay. Let me go and work with young actors. I had an example in front of me in KG Subramanyam. For decades, KG Subramanyam went, and worked with actors in Baroda school and in Shantiniketan. So I was very inspired by this. It was bad times. But in bad times I said let me at least prepare the young actors to face the bad times and do a good job and make good theatre. Between the 80s and now I kept on training actors. It was one of my best experiences because I could do a lot of young theatre. A lot of my productions in Delhi. Even my Uttara Ramacharitram, my Agni Barkha, Lal Ghas Par Neele Ghode were done during that time.

Once the Babri Masjid was broken, we entered even more terrible times. When you had to ask a question to an actor, “Are you a Muslim by any chance?” You had to ask, “Are you a Hindu or a Christian by any chance?” How can theatre survive in such an intolerant situation. You see recently Prakash Raj the actor compared Modi to himself. He said Mr. Narendra Modi is a better actor than me. What is wrong with that?  Is a Prime Minister a better animal than an actor? If Prakash Raj said this, Modi should have laughed it off. But instead goons came after Prakash and tried to prevent him from getting a small award, which was in Shivaram Karanth’s name!

This is what we have entered into and these are terrible times of intolerance. People just don’t want to listen to anybody’s comments, especially critical comments. And if there is no critical comment, there is no theatre. Theatre is not about kissing or hugging the audience for heaven’s sake. The audience hugs you, but because you have been so critical of them and have made them aware of their own fallacies. They say “Thank you, you’ve made me aware that I am a bloody fool!” Today no bloody fool is willing to listen to theatre. Every bloody fool thinks that he is the brightest, youngest and most energetic philosopher on the Earth.

Is there anything that defines your intellectual position? Some years ago in Heggodu, we were at the khadi ashram and I was asking you about your intellectual journey. You said something that quite struck me as far as political philosophy was concerned. You told me that you actually came to Gandhi via Marx…

I would like to reframe that statement. Because I think, I have a better definition of what I am today. I want to reframe it as green socialism. We were all red socialists then. Today we are green socialists, and when I say this I do no simply mean that we looking into environmental issues or the forest. It means that you bring both the father and the mother in you. You bring both the purusha and the prakriti in you. You want to change, but you also want to retain tradition. The question we are facing today is what is tradition? Is the so called Vedic tradition the only tradition, or is it THE tradition? It is not. In India, for thousands of years people have recognized only one tradition, the tradition of the handmade. If you delink the karma, and the dharma, you are destroyed. Today we are delinking the two and we are supporting something which is supposed to be dharma but is actually most adharmic. Dharma is nature. Nature that you acquire through karma.

You know when you use these terms, you are also likely to run into trouble. You might be accused of disregarding secular language and being an advocate of Hindutva ideology!

We should be honest about this, and we should give credit to the Hindutva fellows. It is they, who told us that there is something called tradition and that we had better link up with it. We need to give them credit for this and then criticize them for showing off something as tradition that was not exactly tradition. So first I want to bow my head to all these reactionaries as we call them, whether they be Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist fundamentalists. They have shown a fundamental truth. We modernists had completely gone overboard on modernity, on “the machine”. It is they who pointed it out and now we have to define what is the true tradition. And what is the linkage between tradition and modernity, or tradition and contemporaneity. That we must do through our plays, our poems, work. That is the great task we have in front of us.

So in this push and pull of defining tradition and contemporary, you see political radicals advocating for tradition? Is that their role?

I want to call them (these radicals) intolerant. And when I say “You don’t be intolerant.” First of all I have to learn to be tolerant. If I become tolerant, they will shout at me and they might try to kill me, but eventually they have to become tolerant. Our plays have to become tolerant. We should be critical, but not intolerant. And this question of tolerance has to be treated philosophically. It has many dimensions and layers. We have been talking of tolerant as “me” and intolerant as “him” when both of us remain fighting. We have to go beyond that and explore this notion.

Isn’t tolerance some kind of intermediary stage before absorption? Someone like Rajiv Malhotra might argue that we are tolerant of someone only up until the point we can convert, co-opt or absorb them into our own type of thinking.

Well we have also got our definition of tolerance. This is where we simply do our work and don’t bother about the results. Intolerance comes when we are too eager about the results. There is a perceived result that we need to achieve and that is the source of the intolerance. Today I am sitting on a satyagraha, I should actually enjoy my hunger. Today I am experiencing hunger. Let me tell you the on the first day of the satyagraha, you suffer the worst pangs. Because your own system is telling you “Come on man eat, eat, eat. The second day, it pulls you, but a little less. By the third day, it settles and your system says, “Ok this man is not going to listen to me, so let me become natural.” Animals go hungry for many days, and they recuperate through this. There is everything to learn from them. If you do a play, you should enjoy the play and not bother about whether it will become a success. The result-oriented thinking is what is producing so much of intolerance. Tolerance is to just enjoy the work and let yourself go with the work, which is what Krishna is supposed to have said in the Gita, when he said “Karm karo, magar phal ke iccha na karo …”

One enduring facet of your work has been this metaphor of “the machine”. This was beautifully expressed in a public lecture of yours I attended in 2013. When you speak of machine culture and mechanization, I see it as a critique of modernity… But there’s also this nagging doubt that you can’t be a Luddite in this day and age. Can you really expect to reject the “machine” in totality?

Let us understand what we are angry about. What is this machine? What is this historical situation which we have reached. One is not angry with a machine for making things easier for us, which we can enjoy. But today the machine is environmentally destructive, and morally destructive. We need to come back to the real, the village life. What we are angry about is the disconnect a machine causes between you and your experience.

Well that’s alienation in a nutshell…

Yes, but let us look at it as an actor’s experience. You can call it rasa. But what is that moment of experience on stage? What the actor experiences on stage, looking into the eyes of the audience. It is the audience which is giving you your experience back. So there is an organic linkage between actor and audience. Between the play and the experience. Between the experiencer and the experienced. Machine breaks this link. When the audience yawned or cursed you, you would have corrected yourself. Actors crave this. This organic connection…

Prasanna thank you for this conversation and for agreeing to it despite being on a fast! I think your work is very interesting in this ever-green debate between juggling political and artistic impulses. Now there is another phrase that you have used “green socialism” which is stuck in my head…

[laughs] I am still very very red. I am still a very intolerant person, and I say this as a self-criticism. I don’t claim I am a saint. Long way off. Especially in the theatre when our deadlines are so severe, sometimes you lose your cool, and shout and lose sleep. Today I am on the satyagraha, but I want to talk about theatre today because I am in the other space. The best space is when you are not in the theatre space, to talk about theatre. When you are in the theatre, performing on stage, you talk about the real space or political space, or real life!

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Ram Ganesh Kamatham is a playwright and researcher.

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