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An acting activist all the way

Photo: V.V. Krishnan

In conversation: Theatre personality Prasanna in New Delhi.


Actor, writer, Gandhian…Several are the ways to describe director-cum-playwright Prasanna. One of the pioneers of modern Kannada theatre, he shares with Parul Sharma his moments of literary and social activism.

He is the proverbial rebel albeit with a cause. To introduce him only as a veteran theatre actor who has been one of the pioneers of modern Kannada theatre would not do justice to his many years of “activism”.

Though the activist in him has over the years undergone a sea change from a radical “red rag” and a Left party card-holder to being “more of a Gandhian”, scientist-cum-theatre director-cum-playwright Prasanna has always spoken out against anything that he perceives as injustice, the latest case being withdrawal of his production from the “National Theatre Festival-2008”.

“I have come to know that the National Theatre Festival this year has been converted into a National School of Drama Graduates Theatre Festival, which I think is a deliberate distortion of the festival mandate,” says the NSD graduate. The National Theatre Festival is meant to showcase the best of theatre that happens all over the country in all its myriad forms. Contemporary Indian theatre happens as amateur theatre, semi-professional theatre, professional repertory production and commercial theatre production. As a nodal agency, NSD has a responsibility that stretches far beyond its own graduates. Adding insult to injury, NSD it seems has kept all the foreign entries in, while keeping the national ones out.”

Whether it was his decision to forego an opportunity of doing his Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, for his love for theatre, or founding a radical theatre movement for masses and workers -- “Samudaya” during the 1970s -- or initiating a rural women’s handloom collective called “Charaka” in Heggodu village in Karnataka, Prasanna has always lived life on the edge.

“When I went to IIT, I felt like a fish out of water. I came back to Bangalore and came in contact with B.V. Karanth (a giant of contemporary Indian theatre) and P. Lankesh (Kannada writer and journalist). I have no family background in theatre. Theatre was a conscious choice for me, that is why I never quit it,” he says.

“During my years at NSD (1972-75), I had become political and anti-establishment. During the Emergency, I went back to Karnataka and started ‘Samudaya’ with like minded thinkers and activists. We did a lot of street theatre, lots of plays of protest. It started as a theatre group in Bangalore and we then went to villages and attacked the authoritarian rule through our work,” Prasanna reminisces.

His “political thinking”, he believes, landed him in trouble in 1984 during the first festival of India in London. “I directed one of the productions ‘Tughlaq’ for the festival. But because of my political thinking, the higher ups decided not to send it abroad because it could be ‘politically wrong’. There were protests from all over the country against this decision. Some advised me to come forth and present my case but I was adamant I wouldn’t make any clarifications to anyone.”

Prasanna, who has perhaps done the maximum number of productions with NSD and its Repertory Company, also had a two-year stint with Independent Television Company in the Capital that he quit within two years as it kept him away from theatre. That was the time when the man who gave us theatre productions like “Ek Lok Katha”, “Shakuntalam”, “Gandhi”, “Fujiyama”, decided to shift base to Heggodu.

“I have been staying in that village since then. It is here that my activism came back in a different form, a more positive-looking activism. Apart from spending my time writing, I started ‘Charaka’, a multipurpose industrial cooperative society. Without my realising, it began a women’s movement,” he says with a smile.

About eight years ago, Prasanna -- peeved with the ‘ignorance’ of regional theatre in the country -- organised a movement “Abhivyakati Abhiyan” to demand that regional theatre be accorded the status of national theatre. He even went on a “satyagraha” to drive home the point.

“The movement achieved some success as the Union Government has announced setting up of five National School of Dramas in five States in the 11th Five Year Plan. At least some beginning has been made. Of course, we are still lobbying for starting a ‘Theatre-in-Education’ programme in all government schools across the country,” he says.

Interestingly, like a lot of his colleagues, Prasanna has never been attracted to other glitzier media like television and cinema. “I have done television but I have an ideological resistance to it. It is an output medium, while in theatre and culture, it is the input that is important. Cinema and television completely grab you. In theatre you can pursue other activities as well like the way I did,” he maintains.

Prasanna who is a visiting faculty member at his alma mater, and teaches at many other institutions is now trying to “reduce the running around.” “I want to consolidate my writing. I insist on writing in Kannada because you are true to yourself only if you write in your language. I have been requesting these institutions to give me short-term courses to teach, so that I can concentrate more on my writings. I have decided that I will live in the village and come to the city as and when it wants me for a production or something else.”

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