Monthly Archives: May 2011

Namdeo Dhasal’s Poem

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Namdeo Dhasal’s iconic poem in Dilip Chitre’s translation:

Cruelty

I am a venereal sore in the private part of language.
The living spirit looking out
of hundreds of thousands of sad, pitiful eyes
Has shaken me.
I am broken by the revolt exploding inside me.
There’s no moonlight anywhere;
There’s no water anywhere.
A rabid fox is tearing off my flesh with its teeth;
And a terrible venom-like cruelty
Spreads out from my monkey-bone.

Release me from my infernal identity.
Let me fall in love with these stars.
A flowering violet has begun to crawl towards horizons.
An oasis is welling up on a cracked face.
A cyclone is swirling in irreducible vulvas.
A cat has commenced combing the hairs of agony.
The night has created space for my rage.
A stray dog has started dancing in the window’s eye.
The beak of an ostrich has begun to break open junk.
An Egyptian carrot is starting to savour physical reality.
A poem is arousing a corpse from its grave.
The doors of the self are being swiftly slammed shut.
There’s a current of blood flowing through all pronouns now.
My day is rising beyond the wall of grammar.
God’s shit falls on the bed of creation.
Pain and roti are being roasted in the same tandoor’s fire.
The flame of the clothless dwells in mythologies and folklore.
The rock of whoring is meeting live roots;
A sigh is standing up on lame legs;
Satan has started drumming the long hollowness.
A young green leaf is beginning to swing at the door of desire.
Frustration’s corpse is being sewn up.
A psychopathic muse is giving a shove to the statue of eternity.
Dust begins to peel armour.
The turban of darkness is coming off.
You, open your eyes: all these are old words.
The creek is getting filled with a rising tide;
Breakers are touching the shoreline.

Yet, a venom-like cruelty spreads out from my monkey-bone.

It’s clear and limpid: like the waters of the Narmada river.

Read an interview with Dilip Chitre on Dhasal here.

Street Fight Poet

The words are a spume of raw fire — degradation, obscenity, filth and horror rage untamed; there’s a hymn to hear when they’re spent. Nothing cushions in the world of Namdeo Dhasal, poet feared and revered, founder of the Dalit Panthers, comrade of controversy, born ‘untouchable’. Selections from thirty years of his work, 1972 to 2006, brilliantly translated by fellow poet Dilip Chitre have been released by Navayana, an award-winning publishing house, dedicated to bringing out titles for social change. Dilip Chitre and Navayana’s S. Anand talked to Shyama Haldar about the exhilarations of finding Dhasal.

Photo and poems reproduced with permission from Navayana.
photo by Henning Stegmuller

Like most Dalit leaders, Namdeo knows they will never come to power on their own. Mayawati had to compromise — the elephant’s become Ganesha

Dilip, you’ve been a friend, translator and champion of Namdeo Dhasal for over four decades. These poems, they rip through you — how is it they aren’t better known?

Dilip Chitre (DS): Namdeo Dhasal is known in Marathi as a major poet and is almost unknown beyond the language — he’s won awards and things like that, but very few critics have dared to delve into his works and say exactly what it is about him that makes him great. While I have no doubt that he is one of the world’s best 20th century poets, he hasn’t been translated even into other Indian languages because he is extremely difficult to translate.

There is, of course, the problem that India does not have any publishers worth their salt consistently publishing or promoting poetry, even in the English language. In fact, there are actually more publishers in the Indian languages promoting poetry than in English. In English, you have to be very close to your grave to be acceptable to most of your contemporaries, and then they may publish your collected poems. Then along comes this niche publisher who reads four translations of Dhasal in a magazine — Tehelka, as it so happened — and he contacts the translator, gets after him: do you have more?

S. Anand (SA): This was around the Sahitya Akademi’s golden jubilee in 2004; they gave Namdeo a lifetime achievement award. I didn’t know Dilip was on the committee, I just read this article he wrote. Navayana was very young then, and had never done poetry, but this was something I knew I wanted to publish. I hunted all over for a way to contact Dilip, googled madly, and somehow found his number.

That’s something the poems do, read just a few lines and you know you’re with an enormously exciting writer.

DC: And that’s what translation is about, sharing excitement. You can either share it in a very quiet, sober, scholarly way, or you can share it in a poetic way. Now, I am a practicing poet in two languages, English and Marathi, and I am committed to translation — I’ve been translating poetry from Marathi to English for the last fifty years, poetry from the 13th century right up to the 21st. With Namdeo, I found that he has it in him to be considered one of the world’s major poets, and the only way I could substantiate that claim was to bring the best of his poetry to the notice of Anglophone readers.

Namdeo’s a lumpen, as he describes himself, with no assets except poetry — he sometimes says he hurls his poems like stones, so they’re a street-fighting weapon as well. To convey the idea that poets can come from anywhere, that they bring from wherever they come something to the surface of the world — that’s a role he plays exceptionally well. Namdeo’s also an activist, and he’s been a good activist. But like most Dalit leaders, small-time and big-time, he knows he lives in India where Dalits cannot, by themselves, form a government anywhere. They can only act as a pressure group…

Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld
Translated by
Dilip Chitre

Navayana
180 pp; Rs 350

SA: Not until Mayawati.

DC: Even Mayawati has had to make that compromise with her ‘rainbow coalition’ — the elephant has been turned into Ganesha. These things will continue to happen, but let us not be deceived about the facts of the Dalit situation. No minority in India can ever come to power — and, in fact, there is no majority, not even the Hindus are an absolute majority, thank God. We are a land of minorities. And here is a minority voice, someone from the urban dispossessed, uprooted from his rural place, planted in the megapolis of Mumbai at the age of seven to grow up in that urban underbelly that no one notices. In the 19th century, the French poet Baudelaire wrote about Paris, wrote The Flowers of Evil, and started the trend of modern urban poetry. Baudelaire talked about decadence and so on, but he himself was a bourgeois trying to become a déclassé. Namdeo Dhasal is a lumpen, that is the difference, he’s already there. We also know that, although he was not dealing with cities and so forth, Dante in his Commedia was dealing with his contemporary world through the metaphorical frame of Paradise, Limbo and Hell. So you start with Inferno, you come to Purgatorio, and then you are elevated to Paradiso, in Dante’s framework. Now, here’s a person who gives that epic, mytho-poeic quality to Mumbai, and installs at the heart of his universe Golpitha, the red light neighbourhood of central Mumbai. It is an impenetrable world unless it can be illuminated by someone like Namdeo, illuminated from within. Golpitha, which was published in 1972, is, to my mind, a milestone in world poetry.

Cruelty

 

I am a venereal sore in the private part of language.
The living spirit looking out
of hundreds of thousands of sad, pitiful eyes
Has shaken me.
I am broken by the revolt exploding inside me.
There’s no moonlight anywhere;
There’s no water anywhere.
A rabid fox is tearing off my flesh with its teeth;
And a terrible venom-like cruelty
Spreads out from my monkey-bone.

Release me from my infernal identity.
Let me fall in love with these stars.
A flowering violet has begun to crawl towards horizons.
An oasis is welling up on a cracked face.
A cyclone is swirling in irreducible vulvas.
A cat has commenced combing the hairs of agony.
The night has created space for my rage.
A stray dog has started dancing in the window’s eye.
The beak of an ostrich has begun to break open junk.
An Egyptian carrot is starting to savour physical reality.
A poem is arousing a corpse from its grave.
The doors of the self are being swiftly slammed shut.
There’s a current of blood flowing through all pronouns now.
My day is rising beyond the wall of grammar.
God’s shit falls on the bed of creation.
Pain and roti are being roasted in the same tandoor’s fire.
The flame of the clothless dwells in mythologies and folklore.
The rock of whoring is meeting live roots;
A sigh is standing up on lame legs;
Satan has started drumming the long hollowness.
A young green leaf is beginning to swing at the door of desire.
Frustration’s corpse is being sewn up.
A psychopathic muse is giving a shove to the statue of eternity.
Dust begins to peel armour.
The turban of darkness is coming off.
You, open your eyes: all these are old words.
The creek is getting filled with a rising tide;
Breakers are touching the shoreline.

Yet, a venom-like cruelty spreads out from my monkey-bone.

It’s clear and limpid: like the waters of the Narmada river.

Anand, I’d like to go back to the point about Namdeo as a Dalit leader. What do you make of the issue of his aligning with the Shiv Sena?

SA: I really get cheesed off when people start talking about Namdeo Dhasal with the words, ‘Oh, but hasn’t he joined the Shiv Sena?’ It’s like people read a lot of newspapers and very little poetry…

He Takes Mumbai and installs at the heart of his universe Golpitha, the red light district, a world impenetrable unless illuminated from within

DC: And he’s not with the Shiv Sena, this is factually incorrect. The Dalit Panthers supported the Shiv Sena for a while, and then in the last municipal elections in Mumbai, they supported the cpm. That’s the 360 degree world of Indian politics — why isolate Namdeo Dhasal? Just because he’s a Dalit? Why isolate Mayawati? Just because she’s a Dalit? I think there’s high hypocrisy at work here, upper-caste, upper-class, journalistic hypocrisy. And for people to use this to obscure the fact that he is one of India’s major poets, it makes me furious.

SA: He writes for Saamna, I’m told — I don’t read Marathi. And, yes it’s a thin line, being with the Shiv Sena and writing for their paper — but, again, it’s what you write that matters. I’ve been told Namdeo speaks his mind in his Saamna essays, and Bal Thackeray lets him. It’s not a Namdeo I’m interested in at all, though, right now. Are we to divorce him from forty years of his work and say, ‘Oh, now he is with the Shiv Sena’?

Namdeo’s wife is a Muslim, and the daughter of a Communist…

DC: Who was a well-known balladeer, Amar Sheikh. Mallika is about ten or fifteen years younger than Namdeo, and is an outstandingly good poet in Marathi in her own right. They’ve had a very turbulent marriage; in fact, Mallika wrote an autobiography, I Want to Smash Myself, about their relationship, how much she disapproved of his Panther movement, how difficult it was to live with this man, an activist with cases against him all over Maharashtra, many of them implicating him in crimes he did not commit. At the time they married, he was constantly underground, they were hounded from place to place.

Modern Marathi literature has this constellation of outstanding contemporaries: Vilas Sarang, Kiran Nagarkar, Namdeo Dhasal, Arun Kolatkar, yourself. There’s this strain of defiance, rage and relentlessness that runs through this group — where is it coming from?

DS: Well, one of the things that’s common to all of us is that we are rooted in the same metropolis, we are very much Mumbai writers, all of us are rooted in the maddening cosmopolitan mix of Mumbai. We have our different modes of approaching it — for example, in Vilas’ case, he is consciously located in the existentialist tradition of Camus and the nihilist tradition of Samuel Beckett; Kafka has also been a very significant influence on him. You cannot say that about Arun Kolatkar. Kiran Nagarkar has a variety of narrative voices, but you can also read the European influence in Kiran very distinctly. Putting Namdeo aside, Arun, Vilas, Kiran and myself are all bilingual writers who practice writing in English as well as Marathi. Namdeo is monolingual, he writes in Marathi, speaks in Marathi. He doesn’t read any French or Spanish or German or English, for that matter. Where does his surrealism come from, where does his existentialism come from? It’s something native, it’s part of his self-education. He is a self-educated, dispossessed Dalit, fighting his way up into the literary world of the megapolis. Everything he’s read, he’s read in Marathi translation, and if he hears of someone whose work is untranslated, he’ll say, ‘Who is this person, tell me more about him, will you translate him for me?’

Translating someone like Namdeo is, in a sense, like Method acting — you have to find a space for him inside you, make room, and then act it out

SA: There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you, Dilip. His political followers — as you’ve told me — when he’s in hospital, there are some two hundred Panthers outside. Do they read his poetry, do they have an understanding of it? Or is there a split between Namdeo the poet, and this other, political, person?

DC: I don’t see it as a split in Namdeo; it’s the one-sidedness of his multiple audiences. His Dalit audience sees him as a charismatic leader, but they may not possess the literary sensibility demanded by his poetry. He’s not someone like Gadar, who will write these very simplistic poems, and some of them rank bad poetry, and express revolutionary sentiments and rouse people and so on. A middle-class person approaching his poetry does not know the Dalit situation, he does not even want to know. So he misses part of the poetry.

SA: So, is there’s no perfect audience for Namdeo’s Dhasal’s poetry? Nobody who’d have the sensibilities of his politics and be able also to appreciate his poems?

DC: Turn the shirt around and the shirt asks if it fits the audience as well. The shirt poem…

SA: I’d like to read the last three lines from that one, ‘Speculations on a Shirt’:

A human being shouldn’t become so spotless / One should leave a few stains on one’s shirt / One should carry on oneself a little bit of sin.

The Day She Was Gone

 

The day she was gone,
I painted my face black.
I slapped the savage schizophrenic wind hard in its face.
I picked up small pieces of my life
And stood naked in front of a cracked mirror.
I allowed me to wreak vengeance upon myself.
I stared condescendingly at the Sun and said, ‘You screwball!’
I showered choice curses upon all artists who paint dreams;
I walked from the East towards the West;
I picked stones I found on the way and hurled them at myself,
How boisterously flows this water in its fit of laughter
Through mountains and gorges.
What ocean is it seeking to meet?
Or will it seep
Into the soil at sea-level?
Did even I belong to myself?
I could not even embrace her dead body
And cry my heart out.
The day she was gone,
I painted my face black.

And just look at the beginning of it: Let’s change the sex of Eve / Let’s make Adam pregnant. And then you find it so odd that he should be with the Shiv Sena — maybe he’s saying, ‘Let’s do that, let’s go out and confuse you.’

DC: Namdeo dares you, as a reader, and as a translator. There’s something I describe as aesthetic subversion. Namdeo subverts bourgeois sensibilities, and that’s what appeals to me. A subversive act tries to undo the entire system on which your values are based. Namdeo is a guerrilla poet. In one phrase, one line, he’ll juxtapose dialect and the slang of Kamathipura with European references in very sophisticated Marathi. These shifts and transitions of register make translating him very hard. Translating someone like Namdeo is in a sense like Method acting — you have to find a space for him inside you, make room, and then act it out.

Viju Chitre (Dilip’s wife): At the time Namdeo started writing, his poems were the sort people couldn’t bear to go near. The words he used were the kind educated people would never even think of. That’s why most people can talk politics with him, but they don’t want to go into his poetry, because they get scared, even now. When you ask why he’s not better known, it’s because of that. He’s too rough for the sensibilities of even literary people like Vijay Tendulkar. We all pass Golpitha every day, but we try not only to not see what is there, but not to even feel it.

DC: You know, there are many Dalit poets writing in Marathi, none of them write this way. He’s far above them. It’s not as though he could be the leading light of Dalit literature when Dalit writers have such very small ambitions. They all have too many statements to make about being Dalit.

What you’re saying is this is past being an identity statement: I am Dalit, this is my voice. Maybe this is one way of getting over the question of audience — maybe the perfect audience for Namdeo Dhasal is the reader’s gut.

DC: How does he reach German audiences through a secondary translation based on my translation?

SA: Or how would I read one small excerpt and get so excited by it, and say I want to publish this, somehow, anyhow? When I show this book around, when people read just one poem, first they’re not sure they’re reading a translation, and then they can’t understand why they haven’t heard of him before.

DC: But it is also the case that you cannot really separate Namdeo’s politics from his poetry. On April 14 [Ambedkar’s birth anniversary], every year from 1972 onwards, Namdeo Dhasal has been writing one long poem addressed to Ambedkar, but also at the same-time a self-questioning poem. He is talking to Ambedkar and to himself, and is asking himself and all Dalits the question, have we lived up to the standards Ambedkar set us? These are self-examining poems that also point to several things that happened after Ambedkar passed away in 1956 that he did not have to face — the India that Ambedkar never knew and that Dalits have to face today is also part of those poems. There is this too in Namdeao’s work — if people were to read his poetry first and then read his politics, perhaps they will be less clueless than they are when they start with his politics and don’t even approach his poetry.

Jun 02 , 2007

http://www.tehelka.com/story_main30.asp?filename=hub020607Street_fight.asp

Emmanuel Ortiz – A MOMENT OF SILENCE, BEFORE I START THIS POEM

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A MOMENT OF SILENCE, BEFORE I START THIS POEM

Image courtesy: lodearts.com

Before I start this poem,
I’d like to ask you to join me
In a moment of silence
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September 11th.

I would also like to ask you
To offer up a moment of silence
For all of those who have been harassed, imprisoned,
disappeared, tortured, raped, or killed in retaliation for those strikes
For the victims in both Afghanistan and the U.S.

And if I could just add one more thing…
A full day of silence
For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have died at the hands of U.S.-backed Israeli forces over decades of occupation.
Six months of silence for the million and-a-half Iraqi people, mostly children, who have died of malnourishment or starvation as a result of an 11-year U.S. embargo against the country.

Before I begin this poem,
Two months of silence for the Blacks under Apartheid in South Africa,
Where homeland security made them aliens in their own country.
Nine months of silence for the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer of
concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors went on as if alive.
A year of silence for the millions of dead in Vietnam – a people, not a war – for those who know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel, their relatives’ bones buried in it, their babies born of it.
A year of silence for the dead in Cambodia and Laos, victims of a secret war … ssssshhhhhhh…
Say nothing
we don’t want them to learn that they are dead.
Two months of silence for the decades of dead in Colombia,
Whose names, like the corpses they once represented,
have piled up and slipped off our tongues.

Before I begin this poem.
An hour of silence for El Salvador …
An afternoon of silence for Nicaragua …
Two days of silence for the Guatemaltecos …
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years.
45 seconds of silence for the 45 dead at Acteal, Chiapas

25 years of silence for the hundred million Africans who found their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains.
And for those who were strung and swung from the heights of sycamore trees in the south, the north, the east, and the west…

100 years of silence…
For the hundreds of millions of Indigenous peoples from this half of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen,
In postcard-perfect plots like Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, Fallen Timbers, or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry on the refrigerator of our consciousness …

So you want a moment of silence?
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut
A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust.

Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be.
Not like it always has been.

Because this is not a 9/11 poem.
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.

This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written.
And if this is a 9/11 poem, then:
This is a September 11th poem for Chile, 1971.
This is a September 12th poem for Steven Biko in South Africa, 1977.
This is a September 13th poem for the brothers at Attica Prison, New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem for Somalia, 1992.
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and Newsweek ignored.
This is a poem for interrupting this program.

And still you want a moment of silence for your dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children
Before I start this poem we could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.

If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit.

If you want a moment of silence, put a brick through the window of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost.
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses, the jailhouses, the
Penthouses and the Playboys.

If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton’s 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt fills the room where my beautiful people have gathered.

You want a moment of silence
Then take it NOW,
Before this poem begins.
Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the second hand,
In the space between bodies in embrace,
Here is your silence,
Take it.
But take it all…
Don’t cut in line.
Let your silence begin at the beginning of crime.
But we,
Tonight we will keep right on singing
For our dead.

Emmanuel Ortiz is a third-generation Chicano/Puerto Rican/Irish-American community organizer and spoken word poet residing in Minneapolis, MN. He currently serves on the board of directors for the Minnesota Spoken Word Association, and is the coordinator of Guerrilla Wordfare, a Twin Cities-based grassroots project bringing together artists of color to address socio-political issues and raise funds for progressive organizing in communities of color through art as a tool of social change.

Courtesy: Mostlywater.org

Prasanna, Gandhianism, DESI, Charaka

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Prasanna is an IITian who turned to theatre and built a strong leftist theatre movement, SAMUDAYA, in Karnataka. He is critical of modernity and has been working on finding ways of sidestepping modernity and also making it work practically. He has founded a movement of self-employed women called Charaka, has written two books on the subject and has delivered speeches on the issue. I feel strongly with him. A detailed description of Prasanna’s Charaka was provided by Sugata Srinivasraju in this Outlook. Here is a part of it:

image from: The Hindu

In the serene environment of the Western Ghats, the quiet and unassuming dynamism of this place is only comparable to an ‘anthill’. I am referring of course to Charaka, a women’s co-operative society in Bhimanakone village in Sagar taluk of Shimoga district in Karnataka. Charaka produces naturally dyed cotton handloom garments, which are sold under the ‘Desi’ brandname across the state. The co-operative employs nearly 200 women and has a decent turnover of a crore of rupees. If one were to combine the turnover of ‘Desi’ stores then the turnover is 20 million rupees. The projections are that they are growing at a fabulous rate of 30 per cent a year. Each woman employed at Charaka takes home an average of Rs. 3000 a month. The value of this money that a woman earns with clean technology and clean air here is much higher than what her counterpart in the city earns at an export-oriented garment factory. (Garment factories, incidentally, are said to be bigger employers than the IT industry in Bangalore).

Charaka is not just metaphorically an ‘anthill’, a metaphor that visiting Hindi novelist Geetanjalisri assigned to the place, but it quite literally appears to be so. If you look up from the road below, it is a red-soil hillock that is aesthetically terraced to house the different units of garment production. The petite women, working industriously like ants, talk sharp; their faces are bright and their bodies toned by the rigours of walking at least 12 km a day between their homes and the ‘anthill.’

Charaka is a self-sufficient co-operative in the sense that once the raw-yarn is purchased, everything else happens in-house. The yarn is coloured with natural dyes at a separate unit. Local knowledge goes into producing blues, browns, blacks, greens, reds and yellows. Then, it is woven into long lengths of cloth with the help of sixty plus looms that women have installed at their homes around the ‘anthill’. These women are independent of the 200 employees mentioned above. They are part of the Charaka community, but are self-employed. The weaving techniques are taught and patterns decided locally. There is also a block-printing unit. The garment designing and tailoring units are housed on the ‘anthill.’ There is also a tapestry unit that makes ‘rajois’ (blankets). There is another bag-making unit and also one that uses the local ‘hase’ folk painting to produce curious stationary. The paintings that varyingly have a mandala and stereogram-effect is also tried out on glass, but the locals paint them on their walls. Not to forget at the ‘anthill’ is the prayer hall; the banyan tree platform for cultural performances; library and a canteen that serves local delicacies. To market the stuff produced here, there are the ‘Desi’ retail units. In all, they produce about 159 products.

During my first visit to Charaka, I had stayed at the house of a girl called Veena, who belongs to the toddy-tapping community. She was one of those who had set up a loom in her house and had just then started counting her hundreds and was depositing it with her grandmother. She was very shy and spoke just a couple of sentences during my two-day stay at her place. The silences of my designated host were filled up by her talkative uncles and aunts. I got to taste the tangiest pickles and wild chicken masalas at this quiet girl’s place. This adventurous rural homestay programme had pushed me to unlearn a lot of my urban graces.

But this time around, the moment I landed at Charaka, Veena spoke nineteen to a dozen. She made splendid conversation unmindful of the world. Her confidence was more than evident. One of the first questions she asked me was if my cell number had changed. She herself carried a mobile phone. She had apparently tried my number a few times. She told me about a cousin who had moved to Bangalore. Her attire was no longer that of a village-lass; there was the sparkle of a girl who frequents the town fair. The ear-rings were a giveaway. She had a bank account now and had learnt to ride a bicycle. Since I could not escape her persistence, I visited her home and found that things in some ways now revolved around her. The uncles and aunts were there, but they seemed to respect her space and allow her some domination. Economic independence has clearly done wonders and made me wonder what’s next for her.

At a time when government policy is focused on urban renewal and villages are stripped of their socio-cultural references to be spoken off as rural markets, Charaka is a strange success story. In fact, the idealisitic-perfection of the place is scary at times. It hopes to reverse the migration of both men and money from villages to cities. Renowned theatre person Prasanna, who is the brain-behind this entire effort says: “The village sells its labour and does not get a remunerative return, which it did when there was the system of barter. Money flows out of the village and not into it. This process has to be reversed first.” Prasanna, a former IITian, does understand the process of reversal well. Three decades ago, he quit technology to take up theatre and now, in the last 13 years, he has shunned the city to set up a women’s co-operative.

There is one question that seems to haunt Prasanna at this point of time. Now that the women earn a decent livelihood, how does one get them to remain loyal to the idea of a self-sustained village community? In Prasanna’s own words: “With the economic stream steady, how does one get them to earn socio-cultural revenue?” Somewhere inside him, perhaps there is a fear that Bheemanakone village and Charaka would become a museum of rural utopia. What would he do if the girls set their sights at the city with their newly earned confidence? What if all their money goes to buying jewellery? What if they aspire to ride pillion on bikes? What if they want to change their cellphone models frequently? What if their good looks attract a software engineer in Bangalore? How long can a Prasanna hold a Veena back in the village?

Prasanna is a famed writer too. Here is an extract from an interview from The Hindu.

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.”

An introductory piece on Charaka in Deccan Herald:

Charaka, which is engaged in producing naturally dyed cotton handloom garments, markets its products under the brand name ‘Desi.’ It is generally assumed that heavy subsidies are pumped into the maintenance of khadi units. Charaka, the production unit and the Desi chain of retail stores have registered a combined annual turnover of Rs 60 million and the grant they avail from the government as part of the rural development initiative is less than five per cent of the turnover. The success story of Charaka can qualify to be a case study for business schools also.

Charaka has a workforce of over 350 now. The workers are their own pay masters here and earn handsomely. Annual bonus, subsidised food, health insurance and loans are the other benefits which workers enjoy here.

Kavi-Kavya’s activities

Residents of Bhimanakone have shown that Grama Swaraj, women’s empowerment, sustainable and eco-friendly development are not mere concepts to preach but can also be practised. Literature lovers of the village established Kavi-Kavya, a forum to promote cultural activities in 1994. A training programme was organised for anganawadi workers in the villages of the district by Kavi-Kavya on the use of locally available resources.

It was an opportunity for members of Kavi-Kavya to understand the rural life of Malnad region. During interaction with villagers, they realised that people in Malnad were heavily dependent on agriculture. As population increased, immense pressure was exerted on the eco-system. Forests were cleared and converted into cultivable land in many places.

Weaving centre

Kavi-Kavya members realised that the pristine forest of Malnad region can be saved by enabling them to participate in ecologically-friendly productive activities. With this objective, Kavi-Kavya members set up a weaving centre on an experimental basis at Bhimanakone.

Kavi-Kavya Trust handed over the entire infrastructure to 30 women workers, who eventually organised themselves to form the Charaka Society.

The activity of marketing garments produced by Charaka was unorganised initially. Kavi-Kavya members set up their stall at literary meets held in various parts of the state where khadi products were exhibited and sold. The members were humble and honest enough to admit that the product was not 100 per cent perfect. But people bought their products to identify themselves with the transformation that was taking place in Bhimanakone.

Kavi-Kavya members later formed a trust called DESI-Developing Ecologically Sustainable Industry (which also means indigenous in Kannada) to ensure an organised and streamlined market for the products of Charaka which by the time were becoming popular. The products were marketed under the brand name ‘Desi.’

Desi now has nine retail outlets at various urban centres of the state. What makes the experiment at Bhimanakone interesting is that both Charaka and DESI don’t have puritan view towards Gandhian ideology. They have realised that Gandhian ideologies need to be experimented with some modifications to achieve success in the present day. To make khadi garments acceptable to the new generation, they sought advise from professional designers.

The organisation even opted for a professional marketing arrangement. Eminent designers, chartered accountants, theatre activists, writers, film makers and marketing professionals are part of team DESI now.

The production practices at Charaka are consistent with Gandhian beliefs. Most of the production is manual here and machines are used wherever necessary. Mahatma Gandhi who was critical of machine-based production however was fascinated with the sewing machine as he believed that “as long as the machine does not curtail human labour and human dignity, it is good.”

Theatre activist Prasanna, who was instrumental in the establishment of Charaka, said the organisation functions in a democratic fashion. “The president of the organisation too has to weave clothes. Even computer professionals spend some time on the hand looms. Caste system restricted occupational mobility and at Charaka we want to overcome it,” he observed.

Charaka has plans to promote production of natural dye in the region. Malnad is rich with raw materials like gur, areca and soapnut used to prepare natural dye. Farmers can supplement income from land through natural dye preparation units. One such unit has come up in the land of Umapathi Gowdru at Atawadi village near Sagar with the assistance of Nabard.

Prasanna said that clothes prepared from natural dye enjoy good value in the market. Charaka also has plans to set up a training centre for rural artisans.
In fact, many educated youths who want a change from the monotony of city life are eager to associate themselves with Charaka now.

Take the instance of Chaitra, who was working for a reputed BPO company. She has now joined Charaka. She stays in Bhimanakone and has been assigned the responsibility of documenting the activities here. Fashion designer Sandesh gave up a lucrative career in the Gulf to work with Charaka. Charaka and DESI have not only arrested the exodus of rural people towards urban centres but have also reversed the trend.