Meet the Indian Karl Marx
A bearded man is standing on a theatre stage. Above him is a multi-storey building in Mumbai’s suburb. He is holding a book in the air as if it was a holy script. But it’s neither the Bible, nor the Quran nor the Vedas. It’s Das Kapital (Capital) he is praising to his audience, which is considered by to be an outstanding work of world history, and not just by Marxists. Satchit Puranik is embodying Marx in the improvisational theatre piece called Karl Marx in Kalbadevi. We are talking with him about one of the main works of the German philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx, who was born 1818 in the city of Trier in Germany.
By Natalie Mayroth
In Gujarat, where Satchit Puranik grew up, Marxism was seen as a utopian, irrelevant dream. While Puranik attended school, he studied Marx briefly, who was the first to define what constitutes capitalism at its core. In college, Puranik read the Communist Manifesto. For a long while he thought his graduation in economics was a complete waste, since he was keener on literature, theatre and film. But his past efforts would prove to be useful years later, when he was cast as Indian Karl Marx. For over five years now, Satchit Puranik has been playing the German scholar. Even two centuries later, Marx’s works have remained influential. Who else could know it better than his Indian double. We talked with the actor about the meaning of Communism today and what he learned about capitalism, Gandhi and Germany during his time as Marx.
Mister Puranik, do you remember how often you played Marx in the last years?
I started to play Marx in February 2013. It has been at least a hundred shows, and I will go on as long as he is relevant, which should be at least two more centuries.
Where does the play come from?
In 1999, Howard Zinn, an American writer, wrote the play Marx in Soho. Zinn wanted to get to know the human side behind the philosopher, the political figure, the journalist. The Indian playwright Uttam Gadal had seen it and was inspired to transfer this play into present-day India. They had chosen a man, who is probably the most hated on this planet.
How did you become the Indian ’Karl Marx’?
Uttam Gadal teamed up with the director Manoj Shah, who shares an interest in Marx as a thinker. They came up with the idea of putting Marx in the financial centre of India, to be more precise in the marketplace of Mumbai called Kalbadevi. Before, I had worked with Manoj Shah and he knew that if he was looking for an actor with a physical semblance to Marx, an interest in politics and economy and who also speaks Gujarati, he wouldn't have to look too far.
Why is Mumbai a good place for Marx?
The average Indian has an inseparable connection with its local marketplaces. The commercial activity, the cash-dependent transactions, the classes and ever so tangible caste distinctions make it a melting pot of economics, politics and sociology. Gadal and Shah especially wanted to attract a Gujarati-speaking audience, to create a discourse on money. (In India, Gujarati’s are known as traders.) Historically speaking, the marketplace of Kalbadevi is close to Mani Bhavan, which used to be Gandhi's Mumbai residence and was an important epicentre of Gandhian politics and his movements from 1917 to 1934.
Fist Marx, now Gandhi, how does that go together?
Gandhi is India's most interesting and polarizing figure. So, we created a play in which Marx is confronting Gandhi in his afterlife. By the way, Gandhi and also the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, are originally from Gujarat. To confront a community, which is quite oriented towards consumerism is even more interesting.
In your play, you address also Mister Modi. What is the reason behind this?
For every theatre piece to remain alive, it needs to address the times in which we are living. When the piece opened in 2013, there was a different government in power, and Marx rightfully attacked it for its callousness. 2015 onwards, while India has been changing drastically, Marx is becoming more and more tangible. Religious fundamentalism, attacks on minorities, farmer’s crises, caste and class conflicts have become more rampant. The ill-fated demonetization imposed a financial emergency of sorts, and the country is yet to recover. At such a time, Prime Minister Modi and his claims, his promises, are bound to be under the scanner. Marx in an Indian context is also compelled to question the political situation.
What significance does the economist Marx have in today's India?
Fortunately, or unfortunately, Marx is here to stay until private property, patriarchy, private ownership of land and exploitation of classes continues. Until capitalism continues to push the world, Marx will continue to push the envelope. However, Marxism with a capital M may be an idea worth debating. What one is more interested in is the variety of Marxism’s, the movements, the everyday struggles and power exchanges that it deals with.
Where do you see the similarities between Marx and Gandhi?
Both are thinkers whom you can call 'utopian' dreamers. And both are largely misunderstood for their work. They were fighting injustice with different ideas of how a revolution could happen. And they negotiated with a poverty lifestyle. Gandhi used poverty as a political tool. By the choices Marx made, he lived in precarious conditions. The dream of an ideal world connected them, even though their paths were radically different.
We spoke about Marx, but what is the Gandhian dream?
It’s an independent India containing intelligent human beings, not living in dirt and darkness. Men and women being free and able to hold their own against anyone in the world. 'No plague, no cholera and no small pox. Nobody will be allowed to be idle or to wallow in luxury.' This seems rather close to the 'spectre' of communism haunting Europe that Marx spoke about.
In fact, this sounds not too far away from the concept of communism. As an Indian, do you see this as a reason to be more concerned with Marx?
Anybody in the world should know. More so in India, which has been grappling with its semi-feudal and semi-colonial identity since its independence 70 years ago. Today we are at an extreme point of no return. One thing is for sure: that the basic idea of limited resources and unlimited growth comes with a price tag. In any place in the world, when we are talking about decentralized power structures, worker's and property rights, then we are actually paying homage to an idea that Marx came up with. Capitalism has led to the concentration of wealth in a few hands. For anyone who wishes to understand how power dynamics work, Marx is inescapable.
Did your view on society change since you started playing Marx?
Marx helped me to decode society and how history is written, recorded and appropriated. As Marx said, "Theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses”. I am lucky to have had this opportunity to engage with the materiality of society, with all its complex hues and textures of class, caste and economic difference.
Your audience is very different – from school classes to members of the military. How does the piece catch on with the crowd?
While there is a curiosity about Marx, I have seen that the humanity in his story ends up moving most people. Purely because of the fact that we seem to have heard more about Marxism than about Marx himself.
You learned from Marx, what can Germans learn from you?
Without sounding immodest, I can safely quote Marx here. I learnt the best thing about 'work' from him. He said that the problem with philosophy is that philosophers have only tried to interpret the world. The goal, should be to change it. I am trying to change the world, one show at a time. And what can Germans learn from me? Maybe how to get Gandhi and Marx to peacefully coexist. As Gandhi is rumoured to have said, 'be the change you want to see in the world'. These thinkers tell us that there is more to us than our Indianness or Germanness, more than our skin colour or our histories. We are all international citizens and even more so, in a post globalized world. We really have nothing to lose but our chains. And yes, it is high time we look at history and redeem ourselves from repeating the old mistakes.