With his flowing white beard, beatific smile and handloom clothing, the 72-year-old theatre activist Prasanna Heggodu looked like a modern-day saint as he lounged in the sylvan environs of Mangalore University. Even though winter had set in, the sun still blazed fiercely in Mangaluru as Prasanna relaxed after a simple lunch on the third day of the Karnataka leg of a jatha (march) he was leading. Initiated by Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in the last week of September 2023, the still-ongoing Dhai Akhar Prem: National Cultural Jatha, undertaken by Prasanna and a motley group of like-minded people, is a campaign to spread love, fraternity, equality, justice, and human values. Before reaching Karnataka, the march had traversed sections of Rajasthan, Punjab, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Jammu.
In the past nine and a half years since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, public movements challenging the sociopolitical agendas of the ruling BJP have usually been suppressed or broken up. One notable exception to this was Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra that, despite its inchoate messaging, defied the monochromatic version of India projected by the BJP.
Also Read | Mumbai: High density city
Prasanna’s jatha aims to do something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, with the oldest form of protest: a peaceful march to communicate the simple credo of love for all. The name of the jatha, Dhai Akhar Prem, reflects this. Borrowed from a poem by the medieval poet-saint Kabir, the phrase translates as, “Two and a half letters define love,” in a reference to the Hindi spelling of prem.
IPTA is the cultural affiliate of the CPI and the oldest institution of theatre activism in India. As president of IPTA, Prasanna was the natural choice to lead the jatha, but it would be wrong to see the campaign as exclusively associated with the Left. In the course of its journey so far, the jatha has drawn wide support from progressive organisations of various hues, including Dalit, feminist, Gandhian, and tribal (in States such as Jharkhand). The jatha has been joined in different part of India by prominent writers, artists, and theatre personalities such as Medha Patkar, Prahlad Tipanya, Mita Vashisht, and Prasad Bidappa.
Speaking to Frontline, Prasanna said the aim of the jatha is to spread love. “But love is not possible unless you bring back dignity of labour into our production system and into our cultural and economic lives. Today, if there is mistrust and violence and anger in the name of religion, it is because we have relegated labour to the background. India’s growth in economic terms has been phenomenal, but the flip side of it is that we are in a state of serious moral, ethical, and physical crises.”
For Prasanna, the physical crisis takes the shape of climate change, but this and other calamities can be abated if we learn from the example of Kabir and saints like him, who toiled with their hands. Thus, the simple gamcha, or handmade towel, is an important symbol of the jatha because it denotes both labour and love. For Prasanna and his fellows at IPTA, religion without love and labour becomes farcical if the thread tying it to the land is broken.
The march is not one long one, but a relay taken up from region to region, without a break in dates. And, as in the Karnataka segment, where over the week the jatha visited places that represent the cultural and social diversity of coastal Karnataka, each leg has included visits to temples, dargahs (tombs of Islamic saints), and mosques, as well as to schools, youth associations, and cooperative societies. The key words of the jatha across States are the same: love and labour.
Also Read | Living the Gond life
“The only way to respond to hate is through love, and that is the message of the jatha,” said Rakesh Veda, all-India working president of IPTA. In 2022, IPTA organised a march through five northern States, but the 2023 jatha is far more ambitious in scale. It will cover 22 States by the time it culminates on January 30, Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary, at Harijan Sevak Sangh in Delhi.
Will the jatha achieve what it has set out to do? Prasanna said: “I am not sure whether we will succeed. Success, for me, is the continuance of civilisation, but its collapse has already started. To succeed, all of us must emulate the lives of saints. Is that possible?”