With chest-long white frizzy beard, clad in a sky-blue khadi kurta-pyjama, theatre director and activist Prasanna is back at the National School of Drama (NSD) after eight long years. He remains critical as ever and worries about the future of NSD. “The focus of the school has to change. We need to have role models in theatre and not in television and cinema,” he tells Ashlin Mathew in an interview. Prasanna, who recently won the Ammannur Puraskaram by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, believes that theatre too has become enamoured by all things big and grand.
You are here after along while. What has brought you back to NSD after almost eight years?
The last time I was with NSD was in 2011-2012. After that, I decided to go away for many reasons. Some were personal but I was also angry with NSD for what it had become. I was also not finding answers to several of the problems of the country in Delhi. By then, I had already shifted to Heggudo in Karnataka and started Charaka, a self-sustaining handloom cooperative, run and managed by women. In 2012, I went back and completely immersed myself in Charaka and also started various movements. On one hand, these protests were going on and, on the other, there was more intense work with the women of Charaka. I was also going through a personal crisis.
Occasionally, my theatre instincts would awaken and would do plays there itself, but never in Delhi. As a result, NSD also happily forgot me. I didn’t mind that. Now, after eight years, they approached me. It was because in the last couple of decades, academics had collapsed at NSD. They had to wake up. This is NSD, a teaching institute, and not a Bharat Rang Mahotsav-making institute. So, they tracked me down even while I was travelling to take a few classes. Initially, I had refused as the dates they had suggested coincided with the dates of the festival in the village. Then they called again the next day asking if I could come on other dates. I suggested these dates without knowing that Bharat Rang Mahotsav was happening. It was only when I reached that I realised that I was to take classes in the midst of all this grandeur. Anyway, I am happy, and the students are also happy.
They have also liked the classes so much that students from other classes have also started attending. I am just teaching them the fundamentals of acting, speech-making.
What are the crisises facing NSD?
NSD is either looking to cinema or television or towards international performances. What are these performances? These are multi-cultural performances. In the play, some Malayalee could be speaking two sentences of Malayalam, some French guy would be speaking in French. Essentially, it would be not based on any language.
At the ground level, NSDhas become a national institute for training and acting in television andfilms. There are a number of students who actually want to continue in theatre,but even they are dissuaded. So, the whole focus of academics has changed; thefundamentals are not taught. Speech is not taught clearly.
The crisis in NSDreflects the larger crisis engulfing this country. I want to define it as astruggle between one force which is pushing it towards globalisation and theother force which is pushing it backwards to an imagined culture. The thirdforce, which is asking for everyone to look at the larger picture, at thevillages, their needs and their plight, are not heard.
In this institute, there has been no regime change. It is not about the BJP or the Congress. Inside it,there are market-driven global forces who are ruling. It is not a drama school.This is not going to help 90% of the theatre people who are language-based,culture-specific and region-specific.
When students come toNSD, they come as Malayalees and Gujaratis, but go back neither as Malayaleesnor Gujaratis. Here, there was a Theyyam performance, and they had 20 bare-bodied men preparing the prasadam and distributing it. To make it look secular, they had both vegetarian and non-vegetarian prasadams. After all of this, there was a bit of a Theyyam performance. My point is Theyyam is not about the ritual or the prasadam, it was the theatre of the oppressed in north Kerala. Here, it was showcased as though it was the anthropological evidence of a gone culture for the sake of others.
The school has collapsed.It has been accepting the successful students in cinema as its role models. Forexample, famous German theatre director Fritz Bennewitz used to come regularly to India to do a play with the Tamasha (a traditional form of Marathi theatre) actors and the play was brilliant. We should have made him an icon.When I talk about these things here, I sound like a fool. A few people might listen to me, but most of them do not.
Several years ago, you had agitated for opening of NSDs in various states so that the theatre in the regions can benefit. What is happening now?
This country is full of varied kinds of theatre and multiple languages. This is a pain for globalisation. Drama school began with this kind of pain. When I came here as a student in the early 70’s, I was forced to work in Hindi. I used to tell them that they are making students speaking 25 different languages to come here and learn Hindi and then train as an actor. That is like tying a stone on to theleg of a person and then making them jump and swim. The person who grew upspeaking Hindi will move quicker and will get better roles. Then there was a serious attempt to transcend the problem.
Sometime after I passed out, I raised the question of national theatres. If India has at least 21 languages,there should be 21 national theatres. Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi and Oriya areas much a language as Hindi. So, I said, one can’t run just one NSD. Every language should have its school, develop its own theatre and be allowed to create policies which would help it develop its theatre. After a huge protest led by me in Bangalore, they actually sanctioned it. The Congress regime had agreed to it, announced that they would start five national theatre schools indifferent parts of the country. But, it was never implemented. They have made four to five centres which are simply sub-stations. Some of them don’t have full-time directors, staff or even an autonomous society. It was a sham. Now, the problems have been compounded by 100 times.
You had released a statement questioning the ‘new visual language’ session at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav. What was the reason behind it?
In the midst of this festival, they had a session on ‘new visual language’. I was extremely angry because they were propagating a theatre which incidentally is expensive. One of my students come from Maharashtra and his father is someone who sells vegetables on carts. So, what is the message he must take back?
Do we make him return to the countryside or do we send him towards a new international visual language?When I joined NSD, I was asked repeatedly by then director Ebrahim Al Kazi if I was willing to go back to the village. The exodus of Indians from villages tothe metropolis, uprooted and abased, had not even begun then; now it is a full-blown epidemic. One cannot be a reactionary and stop this exodus.
What I’m saying is that the vernacular theatre was simple, inexpensive, based on the actor and theplaywright. These sets cost a thousand times more than what an actor will cost,the playwright is inexpensive. And we want to destroy this natural set-up and create this monster of a performance which will be acceptable in London and Delhi. NSD should have tried to protect theatre as it used to be done, as a simple joyous performance.
Most people avoid the issue like how Narendra Modi is avoiding the Rafale issue but I bring it up.
We cannot make theatre people come to Delhi, we must make theatre people do theatre, not television, not cinema in their own states. The new international visual language is attractive. This is the reason for the exodus. I am convinced that human exodus is a catastrophe, while the former NSD director Kirti Jain, who has responded to my statement, is not so sure.
Do you think there has been a move towards a larger-than-life kind of experience in theatre?
Theatre has become too attracted towards western modernity, and contemporary theatre had become an imitation of machine-made entertainment.
I was in Kerala recently to receive the Ammannur Puraskaram award and Anuradha Kapur had brought her huge theatre installation. The performance involved the construction of a temporary theatre with aisles in the field in front of Thrissur Theatre School. It involved bringing in a crane, a JCB, setting up of tracks and involved the construction of a 30ft x 60ft projection. It is the site on which most people build their homes and it was a projection. It was brilliant and dazzling, but finally you ask yourself, why this? They don’t want to make a positive statement, they don’t want to make a negative statement at so much of an expense.
Even in the first 10 years of my career, I also had a lot of scenography. Then, I realised, it was nonsense. Slowly, all the dazzling lights and scenography went away. By the time, I reached my Uttara Ram Charitra, it was a completely bare stage performance. There was just a bench; the entire Ramayana happened on the bench. Now, I believe in the actor’s theatre. The Indian theatre was always the actor’s theatre. All the embellishment happened on the body of the actor. This I believe helps us take theatre to the villages. Even now if you go to a village with a performance, at least 2,000 people turn up. They can’t probably pay ₹300 for a ticket, they take care of you and pay you as much as they can. In Karnataka, there are several professional theatre groups making a living. They are trying to balance it by becoming a teacher, by training students. But, NSD is not supporting that. The school is not creating a conducive atmosphere for that, which is making me angry.
You say that though you too began with bigger sets, you no longer do it. Why did you move towards simpler theatre?
Smallness of the theatre is its beauty. Most people think that I have become a Gandhian and to become a Gandhian, I have given up theatre. The other perception is that I used to be a Marxist and now I have become a Gandhian. All of this is true. What I want to say is that it is theatre which taught me simplicity; theatre which told me about my craft. It is through theatre that I became aware of the handmade because theatre is handmade. An actor is handmade because an actor cannot become a machine. And at a stage in my life, I faced the question if I should go forward or backward. For most people, going forward meant joining cinema, but I decided to work with handloom and handicraft. It has enriched me as an artiste,as a teacher. There is no discontinuity there. I believe this is what should happen to all visual artists. For that we should change mindsets and for that,we need institutions. If this institution makes acclaimed theatre director Shanta Gandhi the role model, there is a difference. If this institution makes a Yakshagana (a traditional theatre form) guru as a role model, it is a different message that is being sent out. If you make Naseeruddin Shah an icon,then that is seen as the ideal. Naseeruddin Shah is a brilliant actor who is raising vital issues. The moment I say this, there are voices which say, I am jealous.
Will you be coming outwith a new play any time soon?
I am working on Ramayana and I believe it is important to take Ramayana back to defeat the right-wing forces. This search of mine began way back in 1991 when there were talks of Babri Masjid being demolished. For the last two years,I have been translating Valmiki Ramayana into Kannada prose. While doing that, I have realised that there are two Ramayana’s embedded in the sametext – one is the original Ramayana and the other is a vedic or Brahminical Ramayana. All scholars agree that there have been intrusions into the original text. All those intrusions are interesting because they try to prove that Rama knew that he was a God. The earlier Ramayana issimply trying to say that he is a maryada purush. Then we must look at the original metaphor. This is the only epic which was constructed on a seed idea, the idea being prakruti and purusha. The seed idea is in the first shloka of Valmiki which says you can’t kill life especially when it is procreating. Once it grows into a big tree, every leaf works in tune with the metaphor, whether it is Ravana, Kaikeyi or Dashratha or anybody in it. The one artist who came closest to the original depiction was Malayalam filmmaker G Aravindan who made Kanchana Sita. He understood Sita is nature and the purush in it was not necessarily one man; it could be anyone, any force, any civilisation. Purush means power, the constructed, the civilisation. I am hoping to work with a type of epic rendering in Kannada called Gamakha, so I want to train my actors in Gamakha. This is my artistic journey where I can go to the bare minimum.