How is Marxism not good for India?
The Indian Karl Marx
A bearded man is standing on a theater stage. He holds a book in the air as if it were scripture. But they are neither the Bible nor the Koran and neither are the Hindu Vedas. It is The capitalwhich he praises in front of his audience. It is not only considered an outstanding work in world history among Marxists. The capital is one of the main works of the German philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx, who was born in Trier in 1818 and is now in the improv play Karl Marx in Kalbadevi is embodied by the Indian-born actor Satchit Puranik.
By Natalie Mayroth
In Gujarat, West India, where Puranik grew up, Marxism was considered utopian and non-representational. Nevertheless, during his school days he dealt intensively with Marx, who was the first to define what constitutes capitalism at its core. In college, Puranik read the Communist Manifesto. For a long time he thought his economics degree was a waste of time, as he was actually much more interested in literature, theater and film. But his efforts would be useful to him later when he was cast for the role of Indian Karl Marx. Satchit Puranik has been playing the German scholar for more than five years. We met the actor for a chat and talked to him about the importance of communism and what he learned about capitalism, Gandhi and Germany during his time as Marx.
Can you remember how many times you slipped into the role of Marx in the past few years?
I started in February 2013. It's been at least a hundred shows since then, and I'll keep going for as long as Marx is relevant. And that's at least two hundred more years.
Where does the piece come from?
There was a template by the American writer Howard Zinn who wrote the play Marx in Soho Staged in 1999. Zinn wanted to emphasize the human side behind the philosopher, the political figure and the journalist. The Indian playwright Uttam Gadal had seen the play, which prompted him to transfer it to today's India. With that he has probably chosen one of the most hated men on this planet.
How did you become the Indian Karl Marx?
Uttam Gadal teamed up with Indian director Manoj Shah. They were interested in Marx as a thinker and came up with the idea of bringing him to the financial center of India, more precisely to the Kalbadevi market square in the metropolis of Mumbai. I had already worked with Manoj Shah and he knew that if he was looking for an actor who looked like Marx, had an interest in politics and economics and also speaks Gujarati, he didn't have to look far.
Every Indian has a special relationship with their local marketplace. The business activity, the cash-dependent transactions, the social class and the noticeable caste differences make it a place where economy, politics and sociology meet. Above all, Gadal and Shah wanted to address a Gujarati-speaking audience in order to enter into a discourse about money with them. (In India, Gujaratis are particularly known as traders.) Historically, the Kalbadevi market square is also very close to Mani Bhavan, the former residence of Gandhi in Mumbai. Mani Bhavan was a major epicenter of his politics from 1917 to 1934.
First Marx, now Gandhi - how does that fit together?
Gandhi is India's most interesting and polarizing figure. So we created a play in which Marx confronts Gandhi in the afterlife. Incidentally, Gandhi, like the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, come from Gujarat. But it is even more interesting to present this material to a society that is fairly consumer-oriented.
In the play you also address the incumbent Prime Minister. What is the reason?
In order for theater to stay alive, it has to deal with today. When we staged the play in 2013, a different government was in power than it is today. Back then, as Marx, I rightly attacked the government for its heartlessness. However, India has changed drastically since 2015, which is why I am becoming more and more specific in my role as Marx. Religious fundamentalism, attacks on minorities, the suffering of the peasants, as well as caste and class conflicts are more widespread than before. The currency reform of 2017 turned out to be disastrous, from which the country is still recovering. At such times, our Prime Minister's demands and promises are under particular scrutiny. In the Indian context, Marx is practically forced to question the political situation as well.
What is the significance of the economist Marx in India today?
Fortunately or unfortunately, Marx is here to stay and that is how long until private property, patriarchy, private landed property and the exploitation of the working class continue. As long as capitalism continues to advance the world, Marx will go to its limits. Still, Marxism is worth discussing.
Where do you see the similarities between Marx and Gandhi?
Both are thinkers who can be described as 'utopian dreamers'. And both are largely misunderstood for their work. They fought injustices with different ideas about how a revolution could take place. And they lived in poor conditions. Gandhi used poverty as a political tool. With Marx, it was his own decisions that led to precarious conditions. They share the dream of an ideal world, even if their approaches are fundamentally different.
We talked about Marx, but what was Gandhi's dream?
An independent India with intelligent people who do not live in dirt and darkness. Men and women who are free and able to stand up against anyone. "No epidemic, no cholera, no small pox, no one will be idle and no one will wallow in luxury." That seems pretty close to the 'spirit' of communism in Europe that Marx spoke of.
Indeed, that doesn't sound too far removed from the concept of communism. Do you see this as a reason, as an Indian, to deal more with Marx?
Everyone should do that. This is especially true for a country that has been grappling with its semi-feudal and semi-colonial identity since our independence 70 years ago.
We are at a point today where there is no going back. One thing is certain: the idea of limited resources and unlimited growth is tied to a price tag. Regardless of where or when we talk about decentralized power structures, workers' and property rights, we are doing honor to Marx, as it is based on his thoughts. Capitalism has concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. For anyone who wants to know how the dynamic power works, Marx is inevitable.
Has your view of society changed since you played Marx?
Marx helped me decipher society and understand how history is written, reproduced and appropriated. Marx said: "Theory becomes material violence as soon as it grips the masses." I am fortunate to have the opportunity to grapple with the complex nature of class, caste, and economic differences.
Their audiences are very diverse - from school classes to members of the military. How is the piece being received?
There is a curiosity about Marx. Most of them are moved by what is human about him, about his story. This is surely because many have heard more about Marxism than about Marx himself.
You learned from Marx, what can Germans learn from you?
Without sounding immodest, I can quote Marx here too. I learned most about 'work' from him. According to Marx, the problem with philosophy is that philosophers are only trying to interpret the world. However, the goal should be to change them. I try to change the world with every single show. And what could Germans learn from me? Perhaps how Gandhi and Marx can coexist peacefully. Gandhi is said to have said: "Be the change you want to see in the world." These thinkers tell us that we are more than our Indianness or Germanness, more than our skin color and our history. We are all international citizens and much more so in a post-globalized world. We really have nothing to lose but our bonds. And yes, it is high time to look back at history and prevent old mistakes from being repeated.
Natalie Mayroth works as a journalist and photographer and has reported in the past mainly from China and India. Her focus is on social and cultural issues - from equality to pop culture. She completed her master's degree in European ethnology, sociology and Iranian studies at the LMU Munich. In 2017 she received a scholarship from the journalist exchange program "Media Ambassador India - Germany". Since then she has been traveling to India again and again.
Copyright: © Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi
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