A group of nuns has helped in the transformation of the erstwhile slum into a self-reliant community by initiating its women into percussion

After a day’s work and before nightfall a group of women troops into the neat and small premises of Suvartha Convent, Santhipuram Colony, in Palarivattom. They pick up their chendas from a stack in a shed and begin practising. Together they create a symphony that reverberates and floats over the tiled roofs of the neighbouring homes that were once part of a dubious slum.

The women of Suvartha chendamelam group,most of whom work as domestic help, janitors with the Corporation, or tailoring hands during the day, now live in neat little homes with “TV and refrigerator”, many drive auto-rickshaws and also travel to different parts of the country staging, with their newly acquired skill, a unique chenda performance. “They were recently invited for a three-day performance to Gujarat and then to Mumbai. It was their first train journey,” says Sr. Josna, who is one of the persons responsible for initiating the women into percussion.

Ringing in changes

Carved out by the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) to resettle displaced paddy field workers, Santhipuram was formerly called Kisan Colony. But it grew to possess a seamy tag of a dark neighbourhood. Broken families, drunken brawls and sleaze made up this shanty landscape with women bearing the brunt of raising kids and keeping kitchen fires going.

“It was a sad condition when our Mother House in Aluva decided to open a convent in a rented room here and begin work,” says Sister Josna about the initial years, when a set of other nuns were engaged in social work.

In the next 10 years, the sisters brought in many changes. A tuition centre saw children coming for regular classes and the work of the nuns began receiving appreciation. The convent got involved in the births, weddings, deaths, and just about every aspect of day-to-day living of the 197 families that made up the slum.

But as help from the convent increased, the sisters realised that the community had become dependant rather than self-reliant.

A new set of sisters comprising Josna, Renita and Tincy came up with plans to reinvent the function of the convent. In the first year, 2008, the three began by familiarising themselves with the families. “It was a door-to-door approach.” They began with the opening of a club for children. Next year they procured computers, with help of sponsors, and started computer classes. This saw many young boys, men and a few women come for evening classes. Soon a surge of confidence was built on either side. The community took to the new initiatives. Sr. Josna says about her constant search for different programmes, “We are always on the lookout for something viable for the community.”

Once on her way to Vypeen, she saw a group of ladies playing the chenda and found out the details. Ranjit Panamdukad, a tutor, was invited to teach the women who were interested. A group of 14 turned up and lessons began. “The women here are like tenacious cats. Despite all their problems they land on their feet. I am pretty confident about their abilities,” says Sr Josna adding that the group has a 60-year-old who is the feistiest, “and looks the youngest”.

As the group began performing on stages across Kerala they grew in confidence. Away from the drudgery of their daily jobs music gave them a hitherto un-experienced joie-de-verve. With each new performance their self esteem rose along with their income. “The women are paid hourly, depending on the duration they play for.”

As one thing led to another, the women and the sisters began feeling the pinch of transportation of the group to the venue. A journey by van was proving expensive. And so cropped up the idea to learn driving, to purchase autos and reach the destination. Their first auto was bought, on loan, in 2012. Today, the women ply five auto-rickshaws and ferry themselves and passengers across the city.

As the women of Santhipuram colony grew in strength, the men folk too have prospered and organised their lives.

Shedding the old tag

The initial travails of dislocation have been overcome. Most men are daily wage workers. T.J. Vinod, councillor and chairman for Development, Standing Committee, says that the old tag of a disjointed community applies no more. There may be the odd stray incident but anti-social activities are a thing of the past. We have recently allocated funds for repair of each house.”

Beena Josy, a seamstress, a chenda player and an auto driver says her income has trebled. Sreedevi too is enjoying the fruits of her new-found labours.

“They have learnt financial management. They are not dependant on us nor do theyseek us out only for financial aid,” says Sr. Renitha who is a tabla player and enjoys the chenda. The lives of the inhabitants of the colony have transformed. An event they are looking forward to is the maiden performance by the young boy’s group of chenda players, “boys from classes 2 to 7”, in December. The nuns are only too happy with the turn of events, happy that their order, the Sisters of the Destitute (SD), is beating in a new way of life for the dwellers of Santhipuram Colony.

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