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:
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.
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.
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.