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Young people drawn to theatre, but have no audience: Kannada theatre veteran Prasanna

Bengaluru: Of late, young people from every nook and corner of the country are being drawn to theatre in droves, but have nowhere to go, said playwright Heggodu Prasanna, founder of Karnataka’s celebrated amateur theatre group Samudaya and the national president of Indian People’s Theatre Association currently.

According to Prasanna, whose method acting techniques have become a source of inspiration for many Bollywood greats like the late Irrfan Khan and Pankaj Tripathi, although this kind of interest from the youth had never happened before in the history of theatre, this is not really surprising as young people were always looking to align themselves with something worthwhile.

“What had happened during the freedom movement or the Naxalite movement, where youth in cohorts would go on to become activists, is now happening with theatre. And this is a crazy situation. Because finally they all have to go to Mumbai, the ghetto of actors,” said Prasanna, when PTI caught up with him in Mysuru.

Realising that without an audience, actors have nowhere to go – with only a handful of lucky ones making it into films – Prasanna said he decided to create an atmosphere that is conducive to theatre by involving children.

Prasanna believes that if theatre is made a part of education, not only will children grow up to be appreciative of plays, but the process will also play a big part in nurturing the natural curiosity of children. Plus, parents will start paying attention to theatre, he added.

Thus in Mysuru, the city that still hangs on to its traditional roots despite the onslaught of the modern, the theatre veteran, has floated his latest pet project, Indian Institute of Educational Theatre (IIET).

“We, the theatre people, have done some idiotic things. We have done vague modernist productions, which have isolated the audiences. We have lost the ‘adult’ audience more or less. So if theatre in this country has to revive, one has to work with children. We spent the last two years, setting up this institute. Now, we really want to get into public schools and start a campaign,” said the Sangeet Natak Akademi winner.

Prasanna recalled how initially he was a man of science, enrolled in Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur. But the works of another noted Kannada theatre personality, B V Karanth, inspired him to quit IIT and enroll in the National School of Drama, he added.

Soon though, despite the chances he got to direct seminal works, like Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, Prasanna said he became ‘frustrated’ with Delhi’s theatre scene and about 40 years ago, moved to Heggodu in Karnataka to explore Kannada theatre. He said he felt right at home in Heggodu, which is famous for Ninasam, a cultural alternative floated by another giant of Kannada theatre, K V Subbanna. Soon people started to refer to him as Heggodu Prasanna.

But Heggodu, a Mecca for theatre lovers, ironically, took Prasanna away from theatre.

Until 2020, Prasanna kept himself busy with starting and shaping Charaka Shramajeevi Ashram, with an aim to provide a sustainable, alternate source of livelihood for the locals skilled in weaving in Heggodu, so that they don’t have to depend on agriculture for lack of opportunities.

‘I realised one cannot talk of revival of anything – be it theatre or crafts or agriculture – in isolation. I always say a theatre actor is the cousin of the weaver, of the potter…All of them are in very, very deep crisis. And I got into so many of these things because one cannot be fine, if the other is not,’ said Prasanna.

The theatre though was not ready to let go its prolific director who had such a varied body of work to his credit. While Prasanna was busy with his Charaka project, the book he wrote, ‘Indian Method in Acting,’ became popular with film actors, especially from Bollywood, who kept insisting that he do workshops with them. The demand was peaking over the years, finally pushing Prasanna to take stock of his life all over again. Also, Covid gave him that time for introspection. He said he realised Charaka needed a restructuring if it is to become profitable.

‘With all those intense changes we made within Charaka, it also became clear to me that I needed to step off a bit and give space for Charaka’s growth in a new direction,’ recalled Prasanna.

This decision, said the director, pushed him headlong into theatre all over again. This time though, more into actor training. In a span of three years, he has also already staged two plays from his trilogy on Ramayana. This Sunday, in a fitting tribute, the inaugural episode of Zee Theatre’s new talk show, Theatre Tales will feature Prasanna as its first guest.

Theatre Tales will feature theatre personalities from the south and will be telecast on Tata Play, Airtel Theatre, Dish TV Rangmanch Active & D2h Rangmanch Active every Sunday at 1.30 pm & 7.30 pm and the same episode can be watched on Zee Theatre’s YouTube Page on the subsequent Friday.

(Published 16 December 2023, 11:48 IST)

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