When 39-year-old Sinny Joseph speaks about her childhood and remembers dancing at the annual day celebrations of her school, the Ernakulam-native bursts into peals of laughter thinking how amateur her steps were.
At least two decades down the line, Sinny is married, and is one of the seven-member team of the cultural wing of Kerala's iconic Kudumbashree project, called Rangasree.
For the uninitiated, the Kudumbashree project began in the late 1990s as a community-driven initiative, to make women self-reliant. It continues to grow, with more than 41.5 lakh registered members across the state. The women form small ayalkoottams (neighbourhood groups) and run micro enterprises supported by the state government's Kudumbashree project.
It was sometime between 2009 and 2010, when Kudumbashree was in a phase of diversifying its activities that the idea of starting a cultural wing took roots. By then, through Gender Self Learning executives, the women were being made aware about women's issues including employment, health and their rights. The cultural wing is something that originated from the classes on gender, says Sinny.
In its early stage, Rangasree was an informal group, called the Kala (art) group.
In 2010, under the initiative of the then Gender Self Learning Executive, Shelby and coordinator, Ravi, an art group was formed in Ernakulam. The group consisted of 8 women and they would perform dance, folk songs and the like during the annual Kudumbashree events.
Fives years later, after performing at a number of Kudumbashree events, Rangasree, as a community theatre group was officially launched at an event held in Malappuram.
Speaking about the first ever full-fledged drama she performed, Sinny shares the tale of performing "Maarunna Thaalukal" (The Changing Pages).
"We were 8 of us from Ernakulam district and another 5 from Alappuzha district and we were given an 18-day training by Nireeksha, a Thiruvananthapuram-based theatre organisation. The play was in fact our own lives...they made us all sit together and asked to share our life stories. When one spoke about how she was forced to get married at a very young age despite wanting to continue her schooling, another woman spoke about her drunkard husband. Another one spoke about her young daughter who eloped with someone. From all these real-life stories, we ourselves jotted down dialogues for each person and they (trainers) gave a final shape to it. And we performed the play on stage...the story of a middle-aged woman, who, despite all odds, joined Kudumbashree to fight her poverty and succeeds in being an entrepreneur," Sinny says.
Two years later, Rangasree has spread to four more districts including Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Malappuram and Pathananthitta.
Spreading awareness through theatre
Shine T Money, Gender Self Learning executive (Ernakulam), who is in-charge of Rangasree, says that the art wing began as a means of spreading awareness about issues to the people.
"The outcome is two-fold. When we tie up with government schemes, we help the government departments spread word about it and reach out to the grassroots. Taking these ideas to the people through the means of theatre, creates a space for the women of Kudumbashree, to exhibit their cultural side," Shine explains.
This potential was realised only in 2015 when the art wing was given a chance to perform a play called "Oorjashree", which was to be an awareness campaign for Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) to spread word about energy conservation.
"That was when we realised the potential of the idea and proceeded to formally launch the art wing. Since then, we have associated with a number of state government programmes and also with National Health Mission," Shine says.
Rangasree consists of not more than 8 women in each district. If one feels this is an abysmally low number for a collective that has membership running into lakhs, then Sinny is quick to give the reason.
"Most often, we are required to attend 15-day (or more) training programmes ahead of the performance. And it is mostly held in Ernakulam, and other members are expected to come over and stay here continuously. If the performance is in some other district, we will obviously have to travel, which means we have to be away from our families. This is a problem for most of the women, who are not able to be part of the performances, despite wanting to do so," Sinny says.
Shine too, agrees. The turnout tends to be better when training sessions take place in every district, Shine says.
Both Sinny and Shine point out that the expansion of the art group is possible only if they get more number of opportunities to perform.
"Say for instance the NHM project. Rangasree has to conduct performances in all the districts and we are facing difficulties because we don't have teams in every district. And only with more projects coming in, can we think about expanding out network." Shine says.
Like the other initiatives of Kudumbashree, the coordinators intend to make Rangasree an independent body, that will sustain itself in the future.
"We hope Rangasree would become a source of livelihood for the women, with more and more opportunities coming their way," Shine says.