K. Pradeep in conversation with Prasanna, theatre personality, author, social worker and all-round maverick.
Prasanna always had a rebellious streak. He quit IIT to pursue his passion for theatre. Inspired and initiated into theatre by B.V. Karanth, Prasanna joined the National School Drama (NSD). During the Emergency, he returned to Karnataka and founded Samudaya, a radical theatre movement for workers and masses. They staged street plays, protest plays and propagated their political thought in villages. For a while he was a visiting faculty at NSD. For a couple of years, he worked for an independent television company in New Delhi. He gave this up and left the capital.
That was a phase when Prasanna was disenchanted with theatre and almost gave up on his passion. The man who created noted stage productions like Tughlaq, Gandhi, Thai, Neele Ghode, Ek Lok Katha, Shakuntalam, The Ascent of Fujiyama moved to Heggodu, a small village in Karnataka. Here, he started Charaka, a multi-purpose women’s cooperative, while occasionally writing and sometimes dabbling in direction and teaching. A Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, Prasanna is currently a Tagore Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Prasanna recently released his book Indian Method in Acting at the Kulasekhara Theatre Festival in Kochi and talked about theatre, activism, Charaka and more. Excerpts from the interview.
The movement, Abhivyakati Abhiyan, achieved some success after the Union Government promised to accord Nation Theatre Status to five regional theatres. What’s the situation now?
Politically they accepted it and even started something in Bangalore. But it has been like most programmes. Money was sanctioned, land acquired, and something was started. It is not drama school. It is a much larger issue. If no demands come from other regions, nothing will happen.
The state of regional theatre today...
There is a huge crisis, what I call machine-induced culture, where cinema and television have taken over entertainment. For the common man, this is theatre. We now have a huge number of artistes and audiences watching television and cinema instead of theatre. The participatory element of theatre is gone. Theatre has also become technology-driven. The actor has slipped into the background.
Is there a deep divide between urban and rural theatre?
People’s theatre is dying because of impoverishment in the villages. Gradually we have been seeing performances in the villages reducing, in small towns too. In the 1940s and 1950s there was this attempt to revive and keep it alive through the Indian People’s Theatre Movement and the like. They went to the people, connected with them and theatre returned. Then in the 1970s and 1980s Habib Tanvir and B.V. Karanth tried. But the situation is still bleak.
What about the National School of Drama?
It has remained only in name. That’s exactly what we opposed. It should be renamed National School for Television Training. That’s why we wanted national schools in the States. At least it gets democratised.
Your take on what is bandied as ‘Indian’ theatre…
There has been an effort to engage with Indianness as a benchmark for critical judgment; attempts to make Indian theatre look Indian, which actually meant Hindu. Official bodies even went to the extent of listing traditional forms to be used in production styles. So an Indian artiste had to prove his Indianness. Some joined this, while others like us opposed it and were left to fend for ourselves.
How did Charaka, the women’s cooperative, happen?
At times you tend to become inarticulate because of anger and frustration. I lost faith in the arts. When I left Delhi and NSD, I knew I was going to almost quit theatre too. I said to hell with it and went to Heggodu. Those were difficult times; I was confused, angry, frustrated. Charaka made me cool down and look at life positively. I decided that, after a couple of months, I’ll not travel much. If someone wants me to do theatre, I’ll tell him/her to come to my village. I have not given up theatre but now I do it on my terms, from Heggodu with either the villagers or someone who wants me to teach or direct.
Intellectual, spiritual or artistic labour is not labour but a power. One has to earn one’s bread toiling with the peasantry. People in villages tend to leave in search of better pastures. I tried to stop this. Charaka is engaged in producing naturally dyed cotton handloom garments, marketing it under the brand name “Desi”. It is a self-sufficient cooperative in the sense that once raw yarn is purchased, everything else happens in-house. The workers are their own paymasters here and earn handsomely. We have 11 Desi retail outlets across Karnataka. The demand for the products is so high that we cannot start any new outlets. Desi has been very successful, beyond my dreams.
How tough was this initiative for a theatre activist?
Initially there was a lot of resistance. Groups tried to stop me from doing this because I had this Marxist tag. But it was a learning experience. I learned that, in a village, you cannot be a “red rag.” You cannot be branded. A whole lot of changes happened in me ideologically. I still believe in socialism, but I don’t believe in pushing angrily for it.
How different is the Indian Method in Acting from the Kannada version you published earlier?
The Kannada version was fairly successful. There was a suggestion from the NSD that I translate this into English. But, unlike the earlier version, I thought there was a need to define the Indian method in reference and comparison to the prevailing Western methodology of acting. It is basically a book on dramaturgy. At the same time you could call it a handbook for contemporary actors. It is a sort of recipe book for actors and acting.
As Tagore Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, what does your work entail?
I’m working on textbooks for Charaka. Simple textbooks in Kannada, basically on Gandhian philosophy, on cooperation, etc. In a village the only structure that works is cooperative society. Sometimes it does not succeed because we are looking only at the society part, not at the important aspect of cooperation. I have completed a booklet on cooperation. So there will be some texts touching different aspects that are relevant to the people in the villages.
Does that mean Prasanna is giving up writing and directing plays?
No. I still write, edit plays but I do it on my terms. I published a play Purushartha in Kannada recently and last year did a production with Rangayana (Mysore). I have not given up but I don’t chase assignments.