Protests, through a play

  • By Hindu
  • | Thursday | 7th December, 2017

In October, after a hunger strike against GST, Prasanna felt he could reach out to more people through theatre. Prasanna felt that it was not important whether it could or could not. So I have used the name ‘Taayavva,’ which is how the rural mother is called. For those too far away to actually see the performance, Prasanna was happy to explain the ingredients of the play. In the late 1970s, fresh out of the National School of Drama (then headed by Ebrahim Alkazi), Prasanna began Samudaya in Bengaluru.

The red flag of revolution picked up by the mother in Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel, Mother, made into a play, ‘The Mother’, by Bertolt Brecht, turned green in ‘Taayavva’, the 2017 adaptation of that play presented by Gram Seva Sangh in Bengaluru recently.

And thereby hangs a tale, of a journey, an artiste’s growth and reading of our society. ‘Taayavva’ and ‘Thaayi’ (play produced by Samudaya in 1975) in Kannada are both adaptations of Brecht's play, written and directed by Prasanna who is an acknowledged pioneer of Kannada theatre.

In the late 1970s, fresh out of the National School of Drama (then headed by Ebrahim Alkazi), Prasanna began Samudaya in Bengaluru. Its members were mostly new to theatre but eager to express their angst - factory workers, middle class office goers, students, pro left thinkers and activists.

Samudaya performed for social justice and change in streets, factory spaces, countryside and auditorium.

As Prasanna’s directorial reputation grew he was often invited to direct plays for NSD. But then because he felt wronged by NSD, he dropped out of the theatre circuit and shifted to the remote village of Heggodu. He switched his role to that of a handloom activist, founding Charaka, a cooperative that boosted women's empowerment, and Desi, its marketing unit. But he had not completely deserted theatre and when he felt regional theatre was being snuffed out by warped concepts of a National theatre, he went on a hunger strike. His Gandhian technique of protest surprised many. The ministry relented by promising new regional centers of the NSD. But things didn't improve enough to bring him out of Heggodu.

So what made him return? “Anger again,” said the 67-year old director and writer. “Without opening old wounds, let me just say I am very angry. GST on handmade products is unthinkable. And they even have a 18 per cent tax on theatre, which I feel should also be in the handmade category because it is one’s hands, body, facial expressions, voice that one uses not machines.” Prasannna believes that handmade products being eco-friendly need to be promoted for ecological balance and our survival. The GST will hurt those involved in traditional crafts, and it should be removed immediately, he felt.

In October, after a hunger strike against GST, Prasanna felt he could reach out to more people through theatre. Prasanna's ‘Taayavva’ was performed on November 21 at the ADA Rangamandira auditorium in Bengaluru, without paying GST in a sort of non-cooperative movement, a call for #TaxDenialSatyagrah. The tickets were priced Rs 251 because any ticket above Rs 250 is taxable.

Teaming up with experts

The play, however, did not become a mere propagandist outburst. In fact it was a rather stylised and metaphoric musical with 16 songs. The team flaunted quite a few experts in music and acting. Playing the lead was reputed Sugama Sangeetha exponent and actor MD Pallavi. Pallavi also set to tune the songs written by Prasanna. Quite interesting because here are classical ragas narrating the tale of an ordinary cobbler and his mother.

For those too far away to actually see the performance, Prasanna was happy to explain the ingredients of the play.

“Taayi is mother in the urban milieu. The factory was the backdrop of Gorky and Brecht's Mother, but in our present context it is essential to take note of the rural life and ecology. So I have used the name ‘Taayavva,’ which is how the rural mother is called. She is here the green mother, she is Prakriti and Revolution is the Purusha. As they say in the scriptures, one cannot survive without the other. The Red revolution only spoke of equality and rejected religion and tradition altogether. That was wrong because people need religion. I agree that most people are getting tired of the brands of religion that are being bandied about. What we need is to redefine religion find something closer to the poor. In this play, we suggest that God is present in work.”

The basic plot is the same. Taayavva is the mother of a cobbler called Chelua, which means ‘the beautiful’. Chelua is all Taayavva has. And she is constantly worrying about his well being. She is miserable when she has nothing to cook for him.

The other two main characters are a policeman and a bourgeois. “The policeman is the same as the one in the original except that I have made him more of a comic character, more like a buffoon. When the play begins the bourgeois is seen in a coat. But he, like many of us, is sick of the life he leads and discovers a love for the simple rural existence. At the end of the play you see him in khadi and he has become an advocate of the craftsperson."

So will theatre succeed in changing society? Prasanna felt that it was not important whether it could or could not. It was important to keep culture free as a platform of protest. Something other than taking out political rallies. A number of celebrities present at the first show like MS Sathyu, Arundhati Nag and others expressed their support for the Satyagrah. The minimal set design, just the suggestion of a cottage, allowed the scope of taking the play to other venues. And there was a demand for it said Abhilash, convener Gram Seva Sangh.

On November 26, Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna performed at a weekend handicrafts market at Ragi Kana, in protest against the GST. Stay updated with all the Chennai Latest News headlines here. For more exclusive & live news updates from all around India, stay connected with NYOOOZ.

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