Satyagraha On Stage And Beyond: Prasanna’s Long March for the Handmade

Sebanti Sarkar

Prasanna, the theatre pioneer from Karnataka, is hitting the streets this January, eager to place before the people an alternative to "the pro-rich, pro-industrial policies of the Centre”. First up was the National Symposium on the “Handmade” organised by Prasanna and Gram Seva Sangh on 6th January 2018 at the St Joseph's Institute of Management in Bengaluru. Later this month, a long march spanning 15-20 days will take place. Busy checking out the route of the march, Prasanna shares his theories on social change and what handmade means to him.

Years ago, Prasanna was Ebrahim Alkazi’s student at the National School of Drama (NSD). He then went on to find his theatre group Samudaya. He even directed a number of major productions for the NSD, his alma mater, before leaving it all to retire to the remote village of Heggodu in Karnataka. Here he switched roles. He became a handloom activist, finding Charaka, a cooperative for women's empowerment, and Desi, its marketing unit. The imposition of GST last year prompted a hunger strike and then a play – TAAYAVVA, a Kannada adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's play MOTHER, which in turn had been inspired by Maxim Gorky's novel of the same name. On 21st November 2017, TAAYAVVA was staged at the ADA Rangamandira auditorium in Bengaluru, without paying GST, in a sort of non-cooperative movement that was a call for “Tax Denial Satyagraha” which rallied for tax exemption for all handmade products. The play introduced a new flag of revolution.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that rural India has rejected the present pro rich and pro industrial policies. It is urban India that remains deluded," says Prasanna. A number of people from the handicraft sector and from the fields of art and culture are rallying to his cause. Theatre doyen MS Sathyu and acclaimed Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan are among them. The Jatha or the long rally on bicycles, which has been planned, will begin at Kodekal towards the end of the month.

Kodekal village shares the heritage of nearby Badami, which has, among other things, been the Chalukyan capital, which was part of the Hyderabad Nizam's territory, and was regarded as the centre of Buddhist, Jain and Bhakti culture. Today it is rather forlorn, caught in the throes of feudalism and extreme poverty. Prasanna thinks it is a perfect setting for the start of a long march protesting the policies of the Centre and urging the revival of rural handmade traditions.

Prasanna believes there is a simple answer to all our problems. Live simply and you may end up saving the world. But the change must come voluntarily at the personal level from an awareness of the crisis facing our civilisation and a desire to set it right. All his efforts have been directed towards raise awareness of the crisis that faces us otherwise. A decade back Prasanna tired of life in the city had shifted base to a remote village. Here he slowly reduced his worldly wants and began to concentrate on handloom weaving, tailoring, dyeing, carpentry and designing. His experiments brought different local communities together to participate in a healthy exchange of traditional knowledge that was almost forgotten. "The system teaches us to crave for all kinds of things, yet most of these are things we don't need at all. We keep acquiring without noticing that the manufacturing of these products is pushing the world much closer to collapse. Devoid of the natural and becoming more and more automated, our civilisation has lost its balance, become unsustainable and destructive. Concerned leaders, philosophers, scientists and social workers, the world over, have tried to find a way out of this crisis. But have failed so far."

I ask Prasanna: But isn't a bit too idealistic to imagine everyone will give up a life of ease and want? Besides handicrafts are expensive and not easily available because it takes time to make them. He says: “The price has to be paid for the handmade or we have to pay with our environment and chances of survival. Machine made products have proved too expensive in the long run. They have endangered all life forms. Handmade things are environment friendly. There is no other option. A while ago we were doing a satyagraha on the unfair GST imposed on handmade products. But we now feel it is the pricing that needs to be corrected. Handmade must get its due. You have original Picassos and then you have prints. Prices differ right? Initially it will be difficult to adjust. Which is why we don't advocate any impositions, but rather a gradual shift is desirable where each person experiments on how much he or she can contribute to the transformation.”

The idealism is infectious but I persist: “But we need computers and you must admit that your cause is gaining a lot of support through social media platforms. We also need scientific and medical equipment...

Prasanna is not to be stalled. He goes on: “Of course we do. We are not out to smash machines. We are merely attempting to mend the tear between handmade and machines. During Gandhi's time we had the option of adopting either material or moral prosperity. We opted for material prosperity – more goods faster, the better. Fossil fuels came handy and we spent our natural resources at will. All the other problems of economic disparity between the rich and the poor, moral degradation, and ecological endangerment came with prosperity. Now the situation is scary. And we must and can make the change because we still have that skill. India is best equipped to lead a global transition because we are one of the few countries, which have both hand and machine made systems of production. Sixty percent of our population work with their hands. Once we return to making things there will be more employment and the discriminations will fall away. The bicycle we will use for the jatha is a metaphor of machines that are in sync with the hand-working people. We are not anti-machine. We simply want a balanced civilisation.”

I ask about the Gram Seva Sangh conference and the national symposium. Prasanna adds: “India shaped its political independence through an ideology based on the handmade. India certainly has the in-depth knowledge and expertise required to take up such a task. At the symposium we have proposed the following resolutions be adopted:

• The GST council makes all handmade products tax free

• Governments ensures that handmade gets a better price

• Since 60% of our population still depend on their hands for their livelihood, a separate ministry be set up for the handmade, with budgetary allocations equivalent to that of the population size.

• A universal acceptance of the definition of handmade as all products that use not less than two thirds of the hand process.

We want to make this as inclusive as possible, because this is too large an issue. We want to avoid the meaningless polarisation and mudslinging. Movements of the future have to be socially and culturally driven. It will be the politics of consensus.”

Anyone can join the Jatha or participate, make donations or organise handmade initiatives in their own regions. But Prasanna warns: "You need to deconstruct your own lifestyle first. You need to make it a little simpler, a little harder. The machine has made all of us a little too soft."

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