A group of street-theatre activists spread the message of conservation and social reforms. Akila Kannadasan spends time with them offstage

It's the year 2015. A funeral procession passes through a village, and the sun is high in the sky. “Adiyae Mangayee…thanni lorry vandhachu…!” calls out a sing-song voice. And before you know it, the dead man is abandoned to his fate, and the procession party scrambles towards the precious thanni lorry. This is an under five-minute play that has the audience of hundreds of students, roaring with laughter. But when one of the actors says that we should save water and plant more trees, or we could reach a stage in which water was rationed, his words are greeted with absolute silence.

Street theatre group ‘Aware' often does this to its viewers. It makes them laugh, cry, but most importantly, it gets them thinking. The nine-member group is made up of practising advocates P. Chandran and his wife Divya, E. Gurupatham, P. Sunil Jayan, Fyzal Rahman, K. Badri, S. Raj Kumar and K. Sathya Raj, all of them in their mid-20s and bus conductor M. Yoganathan. Together, they've staged over 150 street plays in Tamil Nadu over the last two years, spreading awareness about the environment and the society.

What happens when a bunch of socially-responsible college students comes across a bus conductor who has dedicated his life to the environment? “We hit it off instantly,” smiles Chandran, the director and script-writer of ‘Aware'. “It was in bus no. 92 that we first met Yoganathan when we were in college,” he says. “Rain or shine, we took the same bus. We loved to chat with Yoganathan and besides, there was also the chance of a free ride in case we ran short of cash…” laughs Fyzal.

An idea is born

It was during these bus journeys to the Government Law College on Marudhamalai Road that the idea for a street theatre group germinated. Yoganathan brought the youngsters together, most of who were active in NSS activities in college. Says Divya, “Every year, we camped in a village as part of our NSS programme. With the encouragement of some teachers, we staged plays about issues such as untouchability, education of the girl child and child labour in the villages. We also taught villagers basic law through plays,” she adds. Divya and Chandran, two years senior to the rest of the members of ‘Aware', encouraged their juniors to follow suit. “All of us have prior experience in street theatre from our college days,” says Divya.

With themes ranging from conservation to basic civil rights and social issues, ‘Aware''s plays are short and simple and the dialogues are rendered in colloquial Tamil. But what makes them endearing are the actors – quirky Fyzal and the dead-pan Sunil can have you in splits in the first few minutes you have met them.

Raj Kumar speaks volumes with his body language, Sunil shocks you with his loud wails. Fyzal is a good impersonator, his lithe figure instantly transforms into a tree, a paddy stalk…Guru effortlessly improvises his lines to suit the audience while Badri is spontaneous when it comes to dialogues. And Sathya Raj can play anybody's role off-the-cuff. “It's Divya who puts up with all of us and brings us together,” adds Sunil. The team meets once a week for practice. “But most of our acting is on the spot, to be honest,” says Chandran. “Our practice sessions are laugh riots. The boys are never serious.” But on stage, the youngsters are extremely professional. When they chorus idhu engal naadu, a fervour grips the audience.

“We've staged plays in schools and colleges in Chennai, Pudhucherry, Madurai, Trichy, Thanjavur, Erode and Salem,” says Yoganathan. “There have been times when we've done plays for random crowds in the street. We would simply clap for attention and start acting,” he smiles. “We don't need a stage, a mike or fancy lighting. All we need is people to watch us.” Chandran adds that the team also trains school kids in street theatre.

‘Aware' has plans of composing a video album to spread the message of conservation. ‘Aware' also provides free legal aid to the underprivileged. “There is so much more we can do,” says Chandran. “It's disappointing that we get invites from schools and colleges from as far as Puducherry, but not as much from our home town.”

The ‘Aware' gang has had many memorable performances. Says Chandran, “Last year, we staged a play for an audience made up of farmers. The play was about a family that's forced to eat rat meat since the fields have dried up due to lack of rain.” Chandran recollects, “You know, the farmers were in tears at the end.”

Keywords: street theatre

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012