Published: 07th March 2018
Of Periyar and Plays: How Dalit folk artist Umarani's street theatre is shattering stereotypes in rural TN
M Umarani talks about fighting caste and gender bias and becoming one of the most influential folk and street theatre artists in Tamil Nadu — and how she wants to start an institute to teach her art
Umarani was a little delayed, so we were invited to wait inside her house and our eyes were immediately drawn to the corner shelf, stacked with awards. M Umarani is a Dalit social reformist, who uses folk art and street theatre to spread awareness on issues such as HIV, crimes against women, safe sex and caste discrimination. She has mastered over 14 traditional folk dances and art forms and has travelled across Tamil Nadu as a part of the State Government's initiative to spread awareness on such vital issues. And she has been doing this for 15 years —not an easy job for a woman, let alone a Dalit woman.
Just as we admire her awards, Umarani zooms in on her bike, wearing a pair of blue jeans and a men's black shirt. She apologises for the delay (she was at the bank making a payment on the one-room house we are sitting in). She says that she couldn't really afford the bike either, but had to invest in one as walking five kilometres to the bus stop was becoming too much of a hassle.
Since she is a Dalit woman, Umarani lives in the part of town designated for Dalits. They are pushed to the outskirts of Srivilliputhur. "In our village, like many others, you don't have to ask a person his caste directly. Just ask them where they live and you will automatically know what caste they are," quips Umarani. Since it is pushed to the outskirts, her house is right next to a graveyard and there's also a liquor store close by, which means that drunk men create a ruckus every now and then. And Umarani lives alone! Doesn't it scare her, we ask. She points to the aruval (sickle) hidden under the table. "I always have this," she says, laughing. But it's hard to imagine that someone like her could harm anyone. You see, Umarani only dances with the aruval. It is one of the many props she uses in the 14 folk art forms she has mastered.
Drumming on: M Umarani says that dressing in men's clothes makes her feel like she's one of them and in a way protects her from them too
There might not be a number to show of how many lives she's changed, but you know that she has, after all, it's hard not to be impacted by a dynamic woman like Umarani. She is the eighth of nine children and like any other child in the area, she was sent off to work in the mill after she finished her schooling. "All the girls were sent there on contracts. At the end of the year, we were given ₹10,000 rupees that would be used to get us married off," she explains. But three months in, Umarani fell sick and had to stop going to the mill. She grabbed that opportune moment to move out of her house.
Soon, she started working at a government library where volunteers like her taught people how to sign their names. That is when she met Kaleshwaran, who she idolises to this day. Kaleshwaran came to Srivilliputhur as the head of a government initiative, to spread social awareness through street theatre and folk art. Umarani was one of the women he selected to be part of his troupe. It is almost unheard of for a woman to participate in such activities, she says. But for six months, Umarani travelled with the troupe and her family had no idea. "Then a picture of us performing came in the paper. That was it. My family dragged me back home and kept me under house arrest for almost three months," she says.
But after a lot of convincing by Kaleshwaran and her other colleagues, Umarani was set free. Over the next few years, she travelled with the troupe to different villages across the state. The initiative was government-funded and the troupe would be given a list of issues they would have to draw attention to. "Depending on the district, the issue varies. Like in Madurai, we would re-enact the Angamal rape incident, where the police took a man into custody, tied him and beat him up, while they raped his wife in front of him. The event discusses caste atrocities and police torture. The people would get so moved by the performance. Once, this old man carried the aruval we used in the play and asked us to kill the police officer, with tears in his eyes. But it wasn't always easy to perform such acts because sometimes,the police would get offended and ask us to pack up. But the villagers would be involved in what we did," she explains.
However, in some instances, the police have also been impressed with their performances. "We are only allowed to perform till ten, but when we abruptly stop, the police themselves ask us to continue. That's how we realised that people are paying attention to what we are saying," says Umarani, with pride.
Death threats for performing art:
But it's not always pleasant. Sometimes, when people walk up to her to pat her on the back for her performance, someone else stops them. "They would say ‘she's a Dalit, don't touch her’," recalls Umarani. In some villages, they weren't allowed to speak on caste issues because the upper castes would be enraged. "Death threats have become so regular. But I love my work too much to be deterred by such threats. Because of what I do, someone will bring about some change in their lives and that is enough for me," the 33-year-old says. After working with the troupe for years, in 2011, Umarani decided to set up her own troupe. "Some people from my old team joined me and I asked other friends to join as well. The women's families didn't allow them at first and it took a lot of convincing," she recalls. Now, Umarani has 20 people on her team, but government funds have gone down as the present government prefers to spread messages through pamphlets and loudspeakers. "But they don't realise that people don't listen or read, they watch and learn,” emphasises Umarani.
Award glory: The shelf of awards in Umarani's house, she holds each and everyone close to her heart, she says.
The Institute of her dreams
Umarani's next goal is to set up an institute to teach folk art. "It wasn't easy for me to learn all the art forms because every caste has its own form and nobody was willing to teach me as I belong to one of the lower castes. They wouldn't even let me touch their props and would ask me how I would benefit from learning the art. But somehow, I have managed to learn by watching or by teaching them some other art form in exchange. So, now I want to teach these art forms to anyone who wants to learn,” she says.
Having covered her professional life, we are still intrigued by her personal life. Umarani has shifted ten houses in a span of two years because no one was willing to rent to a single woman, especially one who chose to wear 'men's clothes'. But why did she choose to not get married? "I always knew marriage would stop me from becoming the woman I am today. I feel bad sometimes that I don't have kids, but that's why I take special care of my colleagues' children. I also ensure that the students in my troupe are enrolled in college and are getting a proper education,” she says. While she speaks, she enquiries with one her students if they've submitted their documents for college admission, but when he says he's having trouble with it, she tells us, "The teachers are all upper caste and don't like Dalit students, so they give them trouble."
Umarani's black shirt and jeans are her trademarks (she’s got about ten black shirts). Her attire makes people think that she is a police officer, which she uses to her advantage so that no one tries to mess with her. But why black? "I wear black because I idolise Periyar and Ambedkar,” she says. And does she get to talk about them a lot in her plays? "They allow me to talk about Gandhi, but mention Ambedkar and we are asked to stop. But he's the one who said art has no caste, so use art to annihilate caste. That's what I aim to do."