How to stage a modern-day ‘satyagraha’
Prasanna, a theatre director and social activist, is staging a Bertolt Brecht play to protest the GST on handmade products
When Prasanna went to book the auditorium for his version of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Mother, which will be performed as part of an ongoing modern-day satyagraha against the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) on handmade products, he found out that there was an 18% GST for booking the theatre and an additional 18% GST on tickets that cost more than Rs250.
“We have decided to price the tickets at Rs251 and not collect GST or pay the government GST,” he says, both angry and amused. The tickets will carry this explanation of how the act of staging the play itself was smoothly converted into an effective protest against the tax.
We’re meeting at the headquarters of Agnii, an art-for-cause band known for its interactive drum circles and one that was set up by a former child labourer in 2000. Come, it’s an eclectic place, colourful and with recuperating dogs too, Prasanna had said over the phone. When I get there, Rani is the first one to greet me. One side of her face has been ravaged in a leopard attack but that doesn’t stop her from offering me a wet nuzzle. A small group of singers and musicians tries to compose an opening piece for the play in a cramped room where a thousand or so djembes are stacked against one wall.
“The rhythm should generate from within,” Prasanna tells the group. That could easily be the motto of this satyagraha. “All crafts have rhythms. The only craft which has no rhythm is software, banking,” he adds. Everyone has an instrument—a didgeridoo, conch, drum, maraca, cowbell, and, my favourite, the Punjabi chimta (tongs), that metal strip bent double with many chaene or metal discs on the insides that work as mini cymbals. Prasanna wants to convey the importance of rhythm because without rhythm, he says, you cannot work with your hands.
The 67-year-old social activist, theatre director, author and popular Kannada newspaper Prajavani columnist, always clad in a handloom kurta and with his trademark white beard, is an old hand at the art of innovative protest. “You can’t convince people only by talking,” he says.
During the Emergency, the newly minted graduate of the National School of Drama (NSD), where actors like Naseeruddin Shah and the late Om Puri were his seniors, founded Samudaya, a radical theatre company that staged protest plays. In the decades since, he has been a passionate advocate of the handloom industry.
Prasanna’s appreciation for the value of handmade things was also born at NSD, courtesy his teacher Ebrahim Alkazi. “He initiated us into not just theatre but creating costumes and textures for theatre, printing on fabric.”
In the 1990s, Prasanna founded Charaka, a women’s cooperative society in Heggodu village (where he also lives) in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. At 30,000m a month, it is now the largest producer of naturally dyed handmade fabric in the country, he says.
As part of the ongoing Tax Denial Satyagraha, which began in the state two months ago and has been receiving widespread support across southern India, Prasanna recently went on a five-day hunger strike (water and half a lime, that reliable formula patented by Mahatma Gandhi) until Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah said he agreed that there should be no GST on handmade goods and communicated that to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Before the fast, Gram Seva Sangh, an organization which attempts to link rural workers to urban markets and which is leading the protest, held public meetings and organized a 150km march across villages. The group argues that the 105-page GST Act doesn’t even provide a definition of handmade, so they came up with one: “Any product that uses not less than two-thirds hand processes such as a loom, a plough and not more than one-third machine process can be considered as handmade.” After agriculture, the handmade products industry employs the largest number of rural Indians.
Prasanna fought a similar battle against the United Progressive Alliance’s seeming preference for powerloom workers over their handloom counterparts a few years ago. He doesn’t view Indian politics as a fixed binary: pro-Modi or anti-Modi. He sees this as an autonomous consumer movement which is using a variety of techniques to make its point and reach people. “Political neutrality is not just a tactic. All political parties in a democratic set-up will be anti-handmade and anti-environment,” he says, emphasizing that he wants to invoke the spiritual links of handmade right from the time of mystic poet-saints such as Ravidas and Kabir. This deep connection with one’s work is also emphasized in the philosophy of Kayaka, or the spiritual view of labour in the Lingayat sect.
“He’s someone who is trying to come out of ideological dead ends. He’s very creative, maybe because of his theatre practice where you have to get things to work, you have to move forward even with limited resources. When you’re lost for what to do next he’s the person to go to,” says Chandan Gowda, a long-time associate of Prasanna and a professor at Azim Premji University.
These days Prasanna’s two passions—activism and theatre—are merging as he reframes his vision of The Mother, which will be staged on 21 November in Bengaluru. He last staged this play in 1977, a couple of years after he graduated from NSD. “Then she was a ‘red’ mother, now she is a green mother, Tayavva,” he says, possibly referencing his move from radical leftist ideology to an ecologically friendly vision of living.
“Prasanna locates his recent concerns within a long tradition of struggle—from Veerasaivas to the Tattva poets to Gandhi—to reorder the cultural values that put intellectual work above manual labour and affirm the virtues of simple living,” Gowda wrote last year after reading Prasanna’s Shudraraagona Banni (Let Us Become Shudras). “That tradition becomes a point of entry for thinking about how to sustain ecological sanity in the world.” Any satyagraha in search of sanity is welcome.
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