"Theatre is going through the worst crisis in its history ever"

Gandhian and well-known theatre director Prasanna talks to TNSE editors and reporters about TV serials, cinema, or digital platforms, and theatre during an interaction.
theatre director Prasanna .
theatre director Prasanna .

Gandhian and well-known theatre director Prasanna says theatre is going through the worst crisis in its history ever. Common people think theatre is TV serials, cinema, or digital platforms and the problem of virtual images being perceived as real people is also the problem in politics, he told TNSE editors and reporters during an interaction.


What changes have you seen in the last few years in theatre, especially the freedom of speech and expression?
Theatre is going through the worst crisis in its history ever. But this is one part. The other side of the story, never ever in the history of humanity, so many young people were drawn towards theatre. Today, if you go to Andheri West in Mumbai, thousands of youngsters who have given up their software jobs or other jobs or Dalits or even women from smaller cities are desperately trying to become actors. This tendency to become actors as militant as it used to be with Naxalism or with youths during the freedom struggle. You have these two extremes now. The reason is that unfortunately, people think theatre is TV serials, cinema, or digital platforms. People do not think there is an enormous difference between a virtual image and a real person. This is what we are trying to tell the world. The problem of virtual images being perceived as real people is also a problem in politics.

But is the purpose and message of cinema and theatre the same?
Yes it is, but there is no sense. It finally boils into the sense of it. In real theatre, you get a sense of it, there is actuality in it, where the actor is facing the audience. Certain communication is happening. It’s a two-way communication. Between PM Narendra Modi and the people, there is one-way communication, between Amitabh Bachchan and the audience, it’s a one-way communication. One-way communication is a disaster. Sense is the most important aspect of communication. We have removed the sense and brought everything to this so-called nonsense communication.

Spaces for arts and theatre are coming down. Should the system be blamed?
The lack of space is so much that human beings are thrown out. With virtual intelligence, all of us will be thrown out. They don’t need human or human feelings. This is the real crisis. We are all fantasising about great development and progress, but the great machine has said one thing - “I don’t need you. If you want to be subservient to me, then I will give you a few lakhs of rupees. I have to produce profits.” 

How is politics influencing theatre?
Politics is getting influenced by its monster economy. Modi might be talking about Hindutva or civilisation, but finally, he is working for economic growth. How can one talk about economic growth, keeping societal growth or cultural growth in isolation? This is why the Indian People’s Theatre Association jaatha that is happening and that has gone to Rajasthan and Bihar will come to Karnataka in December. It’s a padayatra. Actors, singers and theatre people are taking part. 

What is the status of khadi and the spinners today?
If you let it go like this, it will be dead. But with that, even we will be dead. Khadi is going to be dead, spinning is dead. What our CM or PM is telling is a lie. Where is spinning happening? Have you visited spinning centres? For population increase and climate mitigation, we should have increased it by 100 times. Instead of that, we have destroyed them. Bihar MP Anil Hegde, who is from Karnataka, has been asking how much the government pays for spinners (most of them women), and they replied Rs 40 per day. Finally, they hiked it to Rs 50 per day. The MP fought for two years for an increase of Rs 10 per day! How can khadi survive? Which women will take it up?

Some people find khadi very expensive...
A tiny Picasso original painting costs crores, whereas a photocopy of Picasso costs Rs 5. Like that, khadi is pure. The powerloom clothes that poor people are made to wear is completely synthetic and dangerous as the chemical dye used is the second largest pollutant in the world. Let the government make it cheap, but not the way they are doing it now. 

How is Charaka helping women?
Charaka (rural women’s cooperative society) started when I got tired of Delhi theatre. I chose to go to Heggodu. I was also deeply worried about the environment, so I set up Charaka. In 30 years of my Charaka experience, I understood that women are the only stable force in the village. Charaka has to be made into a model that has to be placed before large business houses and politicians, including Modi and Siddaramaiah, saying that this is a viable model and a requirement of today’s industry. We have also pushed for Mahatma Gandhi Vastroudhyama. For the first time, the state government has announced support for khadi and Vastroudhyama, which are inspired by Charaka.

How many people are employed in Charaka?
Charakha, at its peak, employed around 800 people (directly and indirectly). During Covid, it dropped. Now it is picking up. It has 12 shops. We are not increasing production, because we want to consolidate the model. We are trying to set up production of naturally dyed and natural handloom. 

Your views on the relevance of Gandhian values now?
From Gandhian values, we have come to Savarkar values. Today, Savarkar values are ruling this country. Today, it has become a battle between Gandhi and Savarkar. Unfortunately, the battle is not fought properly. Because nobody is saying Savarkar is not a patriot. We all know that he was a patriot and his contribution to India’s intellectual legacy is great. He wrote the book on 1857 and it is one of the best. But when you go beyond that, Gandhi is for Ahimsa and Savarkar for an ideology of violence. Gandhi was a Ram Bhakt, Savarkar an atheist. Gandhi believed in khadi, Savarkar opposed it. Savarkar’s attachment and ideology for violence was so deep that he said because of Buddhism, Hindus lost the courage to fight. It’s a clear division between Gandhian and Savarkar ideologies.
We like-minded people are having a jatha, telling people to come back to Gandhi. Congress lost it because they went away from Gandhi. BJP is now trying to push Savarkar to the front, we are saying don’t do this. 

What about power looms? 
We have to go back to khadi as an economic model. Khadi is a metaphor. We are saying make 70-30 economy, where any product that uses 70% human resources is acceptable. Any product that uses up to 30% automation is acceptable. But not a product that uses 99% automation. I may say yes to using Artificial Intelligence (AI). By using AI for Charaka, women are saved from the problem of writing applications. Any technology that is not destroying nature is good. But automation of 100% is not acceptable.

Cases of communal violence are reported frequently. Why is it so? Are people becoming impatient? 
First, let us be self-critical. All of us have become intolerant. We do not have time or patience. We are all responsible for communal violence or war or anything. The political parties may be a little more responsible than us. So it has to first start with me -- I have to slow down. Our quality of life needs to slow down and it will only help improve. We need to introspect ourselves. We need to spend time with our family. We have introduced mobile phones to children and they have got involved. This is criminal and worse than Hitler.

The Congress government has implemented guarantee schemes aimed at empowering women. As a person who has been associated with women’s empowerment and rural development, how do you see this?
The intention of the schemes is good and it was much needed too. However, the problem is that they were announced and implemented hurriedly. Anything we do, to actually see that it reaches the people will take time. They announce such schemes just 15 days before the elections suddenly to find a new trick and the problem lies there. The schemes were necessary and people wanted that. More money is spent on this than it should be. Even if I were to be in the shoes of Siddaramaiah, I would have done that as I had to win elections, I had to defeat the opponents.

The guarantee schemes are a very beautiful idea. But, because we were desperate, we spent too much money on that. We don’t have the money to pay salaries and those are huge salaries. If I were Siddaramaiah, I would say that all my government servants are going to take 25% less salary. It is a difficult decision, but compare the salary of our officers with that of a rich peasant. In North Karnataka, somebody who has 23 acres of land is still going to Goa for work. I think the government should be a little more careful. I am sorry, the government has become a white elephant. This white elephant should be made to fast. They should become lean.

How do you see the government’s move to implement a caste census?
Politically it is the right thing, but if you want to implement it in the right spirit, there should be a commitment for 20 years. Otherwise, it will lead to another caste war. This country is controlled by upper-caste and upper-class minds who do not understand India. How do you repair this problem? Can you do this by introducing a law? I doubt so. It needs constructive action in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi take an active part.

Where does theatre art stand now in terms of highlighting social issues? 
I don’t look at theatre as a ‘performance’. As a performer, actor Amitab Bachaan reaches a million times more audience than I do. Cinema has a larger outreach than theatre and it does not have a large audience similar to cinema.

What is your opinion on popularising theatre among children in schools?
I am trying to do that. I have set up the All-India Institute for Educational Theatre in Mysuru where I will be spending the rest of my life on educational theatre and children. When people like Girish Karnad, Chandrashekar Kambar, Vijay Tendulkar, Badal Sarkar and Habib Tanveer write something, it is immediately picked up by the cinema. Today’s cinema is 1970s theatre. The best of 70s theatre have all been incorporated into today’s cinema. Theatre personalities are like sugarcane, once all the juice is squeezed the pulp is discarded.  

Why didn’t you migrate to cinema?
In my batch was Raj Babbar and in my previous batch were Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. Many stars were my students. I registered for a PhD at IIT Kanpur. I realised that I could not become a scientist. I went to the National School of Drama and fell in love with theatre. Since then my love towards drama has been the same and I did not wish to go to the cinema.

Can technology be used to popularise ‘theatre’ and ‘khadi’? Can OTT help theatre reach a larger audience?
To reach people we need technology. But it should not kill all that is natural and give the virtual. We are trying to bring theatre to OTT. Marathi and Bengali theatres have successfully used OTT. We will produce a play and the OTT purchases it. ‘Theatre’ has to happen as ‘theatre’ and people who are willing to get the experience of theatre should pay for it and then release the same on OTT. This will help improve the quality of the theatre like how it is in New York and London.

When the government changes, they rewrite the school textbooks, be it on Savarkar or others. How do you see this?
We cannot have an ideological perspective about education. It has to be a cultural perspective. Children need to be told stories like Ramayana, Mahabharat and Homer’s Iliad because they have a lot of imagination. But you cannot feed them Ramayana because one is a Hindu. I would be happy if children also read the life of Jesus Christ. All my life I have done Ramayana. However, I will never be an RSS man and I do not accept the Ram Mandir business and the Rath Yatra.

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