A theatre troupe of sanitary workers is dissolving age-old prejudices in Tirthahalli

Until recently, people hardly ever acknowledged Mahendra K as he went around collecting garbage from homes in the small town of Thirthahalli, in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district. But now people smile and recognise him as ‘postman,’ though the nature of his job remains the same.

This change in attitude was, in large part, brought about by a new amateur theatre troupe, Poura Karmikara Ranga Balaga, of which Mahendra is a member. The 12-member troupe consists entirely of sanitary workers, and Mahendra essayed — evidently with much success — the role of a postman in a recent play.

It was the town panchayat’s idea to form a theatre group of sanitary workers, with the aim of giving a sense of dignity to the workers’ occupation, says panchayat president Sandesh Javali. “The sanitation workers who play an important role in maintaining public health are often looked down upon,” he says, adding, “The working conditions are harsh but people often insult them when they go to collect garbage.”

Most of the troupe members are Dalits and the third-generation migrants from Tamil Nadu, whose grandparents came here as labourers.

“Theatre has helped me realise the creative possibilities of my personality,” says Vasanth Raj, 31, who dropped out of school after class 10 and became a sanitary worker.

“I feel thrilled when people recognise us by the names of the characters we enact and appreciate our performance,” Mr. Mahendra says. Sunil, another civic worker, adds that yoga and meditation sessions held before rehearsals were a big help. “Involvement in theatre has also helped many of my friends get rid of alcohol and tobacco addiction,” he says, adding that they are excited about their next performance in Mastikatte village on November 29.

On old age

The troupe’s most recent success is Sorutihudu Sambandha , which looks at the plight of the elderly in a fast-changing society. The first show was on Civic Workers’ Day on October 16. Scripted by Mahantesh Ramadurga and directed by Praveen Halmathur, it has seen eight shows since then.

Mr. Halmathur says theatre has boosted the confidence of the sanitation workers and improved their communication skills. The troupe’s plays will continue to focus on social issues, he adds.