Society

Superheroes on a truck

This year’s Lorry Lolakku uses dancing skeletons, battle scenes and Chinese dragons to shine the headlight(!) on adolescent sexual health

“Do you know what periods are?” Sangeeta Isvaran writer, social worker and now-performer asks the crowd seated to see her play.

“Yes!” reply the rows of teens and pre-teens, and even some children as young as eight, as their parents look on curiously.

“What is it?” she coaxes them to speak.

“It’s the time when we can’t leave the house.”

“Why?”

“Because mother will punish us if we do.”

***

Superheroes on a truck

“Segregation and prejudice form a part of puberty across many communities and classes,” Sangeeta tells me later, after wrapping up her performance in this year’s Lorry Lolakku, held at AIR Kuppam in Ennore.

The play, Vetri, held on a 22-feet-long trailer truck, is based on her comic book that attempts to upturn social stereotypes among adolescents.

“But some youngsters are hit harder than others,” she continues, “In a privileged home, the girl will be shunted to a separate room. But in homes where the entire family shares a single room, she will have to sleep outside all night, with a bowl of food gingerly kept out for her.”

It is a truth many across the country grow up with, and that has been addressed over and over again. What makes Sangeeta’s approach different, is the truck: “The size of the truck depends on how narrow the lanes are in the places we perform, but each truck has the same set mounted on it: purple caves and a big green banyan tree. Everyone deserves to take time off their day to see something beautiful.”

The set is not the only tool that Lorry Lolakku, an initiave by Satradi NGO, uses to soften the intensity of its social message-laden performances. This year, for instance, in addition to the yawning mouth of a cave and a tree, there was a polystyrene skeleton held up by a wooden frame that could be maneuvered to make it dance, and a Chinese dragon-like costume used to symbolise a massive snake, all made by creative talent based in North Chennai.

The hands that build

Set-designer Surendaran K and his team had their hands full, constructing a set with props that could be dismantled and packed up easily enough to carry across districts, from show to show.

Superheroes on a truck

“We used bamboo sticks as the base for the mountains. On top of that, we have used A4 sheets, newspaper. And then, there is a foam-like chemical. We used acrylic colours to paint it. It took about a month to construct the whole set. For each and every prop, we needed the artistes to check if it fits them, if they can carry it. At the same time, it is damage-resistant. The entire mountain, for instance, weighs just 15 kilograms,” he explains.

This particular production, for him, is a different kind of opportunity.

“I was born and brought in Korukkupet. There’s a certain perception about people of North Chennai... The NGO Arunodaya would come to our area and educate children. They encouraged my drawing, and featured my work in their publication Chitterumbu Pesudhu (The Small Ant Talks). I then got into art direction, and have worked in films like Irumbukottai Murattusingam, Attakathi, Kaala, Aadhibagavan,” he says, adding, “I charged just the material and labour cost for making the sets for the play. It cost a little over ₹1 lakh. It usually takes more than that if I do it for profit.”

Talk free

Despite all their efforts to keep things hassle-free, the entire set took about an hour-and-a-half to put up, and an equal amount of time to take down. But the effort is worth it, feels Sangeeta. “We were discussing a number of things that are usually taboo, from sperms and eggs to nightfall. We didn’t want the audience to get scandalised and walk away; some information is just more fun to take when it is sung to you by a dancing skeleton.”

Superheroes on a truck

Her tactic seems to have worked: the crowd gathered listens intently, laughs at the right places and doesn’t appear to be judgemental.

The children, in fact, are rooted to their spots, be it on the rooftops of the surrounding houses or the floor in front of the lorry, from where they edge closer and closer to the actors till there’s hardly any space left for the battle scenes. At one point, the narrator and court jester have to pretend that there isn’t a curious little girl wedged in between them.

Despite the interest, the audience members don’t feel comfortable discussing any part of the production in its aftermath — not the jokes, the therukoothu performers, the Bharatanatyam or the comic book-based superheroes. But Sangeeta is confident that the message has reached them; she can tell simply by the fact that they stayed. “With issues like these, just talking to people doesn’t help,” she says, “You have to make people feel something, and you have to make them laugh.”

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Printable version | Jul 13, 2020 4:36:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/superheroes-on-a-truck/article26533492.ece

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