Cityscapes

A theatre group in Bengaluru invited Narendra Modi to watch a play that protests GST

As part of a Tax Denial Satyagraha, the Graam Seva Sangh did not charge GST on the tickets.

On November 21, more than four months after the Indian government rolled out the Goods and Services Tax, nearly 600 people assembled at ADA Rangamandira, one of Bengaluru’s oldest auditoriums, to be a part of a unique protest against the tax. They had all come to watch a play.

A Kannada musical called Taayavva, written and directed by renowned theatre artist and social activist Prasanna, was part of the ongoing Tax Denial Satyagraha, a nearly two-month-long protest in Karnataka spearheaded by the Graam Seva Sangh against GST.

The agitators’ primary demand is that there should be no tax on all handmade products in the country, and their larger argument is that there cannot be a common tax for a country as unequal as India. Following a padayatra, or march, across the state and a hunger strike, the Sangh had decided it was time to stage a play.

Inside ADA Rangamandira. Photo courtesy: Graam Seva Sangh.
Inside ADA Rangamandira. Photo courtesy: Graam Seva Sangh.

Personal to political

Rangamandira’s seating capacity is for 450 people, but on the day of the performance, plastic chairs lined the aisles. People were willing to stand, if necessary, to participate in what was in a sense a gathering of tax evaders.

The Gram Seva Sangh refused to charge GST on tickets for the play. “As part of the Tax Denial Satyagraha against the imposition of GST on cultural performances, we have sold this ticket without collecting or paying the tax,” read the ticket. “We, the producers of the play, are willing to be legally punished for this, but shall not end the satyagraha till the tax is rescinded.” The tickets were price at Rs 251 – had they been a rupee less, they would have been exempted from the GST bracket altogether.

In the opening scene of Prasanna’s play (a loose adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother) the audience met the central character Taayavva, played by singer MD Pallavi Arun. Taayavva rues how difficult it is to convert her watery saaru or rasam into something delicious for her son.

“See, what I have again is this watery concoction,” she says. “Doesn’t my son, one who toils day and night, deserve at least a piece of fish in his saaru, or some vegetables, perhaps? Don’t ask! Thankfully, at least we can avail subsidised rice. Else, even that would be elusive.”

Taayyavva emerges as a strong symbol of the awakened poor, one who isn’t ready to back down anymore. Photo courtesy: Graam Seva Sangh.
Taayyavva emerges as a strong symbol of the awakened poor, one who isn’t ready to back down anymore. Photo courtesy: Graam Seva Sangh.

From this small, personal complaint, the play follows the gradual transformation of Taayavva from a timid, unthinking villager to a politically-aware, conscientious revolutionary. Taayavva’s son, Cheluva, is a member of a group that decides to spread awareness about a new sales tax rule and its debilitating effects on the rural economy. Taayavva cannot read, and initially, wishes that Cheluva stays out of activism – she has heard horrifying stories of police raids on such pamphleteers or as some others have called them, Naxals.

But Prasanna’s musical sees Taayavva argue with her fears to fight for her rights. She starts to distribute the pamphlets to keep Cheluva out of trouble, but gradually learns that the reason behind her watery stew is the fact that the poor are not able to earn what is due to them and their labouring hands.

Over the course of 100 minutes, Prasanna explores a number of ideas: the meaning, relevance and need of protest, the relationship between labour and factory owners, the ills of our increasingly consumerist society and most importantly, the replacement of labour with automation. The auditorium rang with songs about labour and ended with a call for a society that values and cherishes the hand that toils.

To those who know his work, it came as no surprise that Prasanna, one of the pioneers of modern theatre in Karnataka, chose a play as his means of protest. But Taayavva was prompted by something more, he said.

Photo courtesy: Graam Seva Sangh.
Photo courtesy: Graam Seva Sangh.

“This satyagraha began like any other; its immediate impetus was the Goods and Services Tax,” he told Scroll.in. “Even before GST, the handmade sector had been neglected for decades in this country and because of that, 70% of the population of this country have lost their jobs. It was a terrible situation already, and then this foolish idea comes to our politicians: that they should tax everybody equally. I think they are guided by the foolish middle class that thinks that everyone who does not pay tax is lazy, corrupt and abusive. If you snatch entrepreneurship from the poor, what will they do?”

Prasanna said those like him who worked with economically weaker sections of society realised the impact of GST much before the media.

“We realised that the handmade sector is actually a cultural sector. Rural entrepreneurship is traditional. In the handmade sector, you cannot make a distinction between the product and the producer, or the product and the society and skills that generates it. Handmade products are cultural products. That is when we realised that the struggle to preserve or save them will also have to be cultural.”

Photo courtesy: Graam Seva Sangh.
Photo courtesy: Graam Seva Sangh.

The cultural route

The decision to turn to culture was also because the poor have no political voice, said Prasanna. “Civilisation has become a nexus between the profiteers and what I call the easy people. They are voters clamouring to ensure politicians make their lives easier. Making lives easier [for those who have it easy already] is profitable. Anybody not in this nexus is at a disadvantage, like in the handmade sector. If they have to be heard, they have to find a new voice.”

Prasanna found that poet-saints such as Kabir and Ravidas had found a similar voice back in their day. “Kabir sat in front of his looms and sang,” he said. “Ravidas sat with his cobbling tools and sang. They never gave up their work. Their craft, their tools, their product was their god. This intricate link between god and skill, morality and the product – this is what we need to revive. In Kannada, especially in the Vachana tradition, there is an extraordinary framework called Kayaka and Jangama. Kayaka is labour and jangama is dynamics, which explains that unless you labour, you are not civilised.”

The labour songs Taayavva sings in the play came to Prasanna as he sat in protest against the GST. “I called Pallavi and gave her one of the songs immediately,” he said. “She composed it immediately and we released it. I realised we could not lose more time. Right after the hunger satyagraha, we started rehearsals.”

Play

Consensus building

Prasanna also deliberately placed the character of a suited English-speaking gentleman among the villagers. “One of the objectives of my play is to advocate the need for consensus,” said Prasanna. “We have to build consensus – both in terms of politics and society. I don’t want to keep the bourgeoisie out of this struggle. All revolutions historically have been led by the bourgeoisie. The middle class which is the most corrupt class is also the most creative class, their role in this consensus creation is huge. In future, all struggles will have to be those of creating consensus.”

The Graam Seva Sangh invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to watch the play on November 21. A while later, it extended another invitation to the prime minister to join a subsequent cultural protest:

Narendra Modi ji,
We invite you to a music concert by TM Krishna, the renowned Carnatic musician from Tamil nadu. He sings for the handmade product and the hardworking people. This is one in a series of cultural events organised by Gram Seva Sangh in support of the Tax Denial Satyagraha. The event is being held at Ragi Kana, a Sunday market in Bengaluru,  a place where handcrafting people assemble every weekend to sell their handmade products. It is on November 26, 2017 at 5 pm. Thousands of citizens are expected to join in. We want you to come, Sir. By listening to people’s music, we are sure it will help you to take a positive decision on making all handmade products zero taxed.

— Graam Seva Sangh.

“The Commissar of GST in Bengaluru once attended a talk I was giving at a college,” said Prasanna. “He sat through the whole thing and at the end, told me that he would like to go through all the papers and try and push our demands across. He said that some of the things we were asking for were very fundamental.”

Prasanna recounted parts of his speech that day. “The total contribution of the handmade sector according to government records is only 3.4% of the Gross Domestic Profit,” he said. “Even if you make it tax free, the revenue loss is only 3.4%. We are demanding zero per cent tax, hoping that 3.4 will grow in the future.”

“When Krishna Byregowda, Karnataka’s representative in the GST council, said that the poor must be taxed less, many other states actually supported it,” Prasanna added. “If we want a centralised system like what the government is proposing, then GST is a wonderful thing. It works extremely well for the organised industry. But it is a terrible thing for the informal sector. Going by how the economy is performing today, we have to start deconstructing the formal sector too. GST is our subjective reality, but out agitation should be long-term.”

Prasanna.
Prasanna.
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