The pandemic diary: From masks to music these women at a shelter in Chennai continue their resilience

A room at Greater Chennai Corporation’s shelter for women with disabilities has undergone a sea change. The monotonic hum of sewing machines has given way to a symphony of traditional music instruments.

A group of women at the Better World Shelter for Women with Disabilities in Nungambakkam practise playing these instruments and rehearse plays at what is called ‘the tailoring room’.

Last year, these women would work on the sewing machines to turn out masks. Now, they run ‘Bul Bul Tara’, a cultural troupe that seeks to highlight social issues through theatre and music.

Currently, Madan is teaching them how to play the percussion-instrument parai; and Srijith Sundaram is conducting theatre classes for them.

Either working or studying, these women found the pandemic snatch away their source of livelihood, and they had to reinvent themselves.

The mask project

They turned to making masks.

R. Shanthi, a tailor with loco-motor disability and a resident of the shelter, was the only person who knew to use a sewing machine. When she got an order from a customer, a Corporation employee, to make masks, she roped in others from the hostel to help her.

Those who did not know how to sew attended to tasks that were tertiary but still significant — cutting the material, attaching the strings and packing them.

ALSO READ: Residents of a shelter in Chennai learn a new skill during the lockdown and put it to good use

Due to a shortage of masks in Chennai during the initial days of the pandemic, orders kept pouring in.

“My earnings from making masks during the lockdown was higher than at other times when I would stitch blouses and other clothes,” says Shanthi.

With a slowdown in the demand for masks, the women began to participate in the Corporation’s COVID-19 intervention programmes undertaken at different neighbourhoods. They would collect data, go from door to door to carry out temperature checks and conduct awareness programmes about checking the spread of the virus.

Matilda Foneca had turned to mask-making, having lost her job as a telephone operator at a restaurant.

“I was making masks and once that work dried up, I was enlisted by the Greater Chennai Corporation for its outreach work, which required me to collect data from various households and key it into an Excel sheet,” says Matilda, a wheelchair-bound basketball player. Along with Kavitha and Manimegalai, she would create awareness about mask-wearing.

“We were assigned the Virugambakkam area to spread the message and that is also when we realised that we were good at engaging with people,” says Matilda. The intervention programmes for the Corporation fetched her ₹13,000.

Social change

Srijith Sundaram, a theatre personality who runs the group Kattiyakari, is their trainer.

“We use theatre and other traditional art forms to empower them and make them understand social justice and rights,” says Srijith, adding that he uses his students’ inputs to improvise theatre.

“As part of the training, a few of them went to Kancheepuram where a young woman died after falling into a septic tank, as her office did not have a toilet. In the future, the group would enact plays to send across a social message,” says Srijith.

Aiswarya Rao, director of the Centre and a paediatrician, says, “One project led to another and they have adapted very well to the new challenges,” says Dr Aiswarya, who has been mentoring the women. In the mask-making project, a factory-like protocol was being followed on how tasks were assigned to them, based on each other’s strengths, recalls Aiswarya. The fact that some of these women are wheelchair-bound basketball players helps them meet the demands of theatrical performances.

Recently, the shelter added another feature to its cap: The State Commissionerate for the Welfare of the Differently-Abled sanctioned an entrepreneurship and livelihood project for it. “We have signed an MoU with Better World Shelter for Women with Disabilities where the unit will be training other women from the district in various aspects of running a small enterprise,” says Johny Tom Varghese, State Commissioner and director of Commissionerate for the Welfare of the Differently-Abled.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 10:13:55 AM |

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