Sheela, along with a few volunteers like Geetha, has formed Sahaja Samskruthika Vedike, a threatre group.
For the past 15 years, they have been creating spaces for theatre-based interventions on caste-based discrimination, women’s ambitions, sexual harassment, child abuse, menstrual hygiene and child marriage.
She also organises theatre festivals bringing the best of theatre to Koppal.
I do not want to be their leader. I want them (women from the nomadic communities) to lead their fight and get justice
Hello Standing in the front yard of a temple in Gandhi Nagar, a slum in Koppal city, Sheela Halkurike, 40, poses a thought-provoking question to the women in front of her, in the form of a song that goes: ‘avanige ondu thara avalige ondu thara yaake maadidaro kaane...’ (Who knows why it is one way for men, and another for women?)
The song questions the discrimination that women face every day. By the end of the eight-paragraph musical number, there are several moist eyes and contemplative expressions in the group. This performance is a depiction of the realities of the audience — gender inequality, harassment and abuse. Sheela does not try to comfort them. Instead, she asks the women what they are doing to address these problems.
Using art, the performer highlights social evils. By involving the community in the depictions, the activity becomes self-reflexive. As a result, change has become tangible in communities – abuse is reported and addressed, and harassment is confronted.
Having started theatre interventions with the main intention of protecting dying forms of art, Sheela perceived a need to do more. “I went to nomadic and tribal communities to learn and preserve their art forms, as each community is a treasure trove of art,” she recalls. She attempted to keep the art alive, with the help of members of the community. Recently, she staged a performance of the forgotten art form of Durgamurgi and Gangageetha to inaugurate the state-level convention of Devadasis and nomadic communities in Koppal.
“But I realised that more than the art, it was the people that mattered,” she adds.
People reacted positively when they saw their issues and concerns performed in front of them, she found. “This is why I take members from their own colony to enact a play or skit, so that they can understand that there are ways to come out of their hardship,” explains Sheela.
She has been working with several nomadic communities in Koppal. The members of Durgamurgi, Sindologi, Shillekyata, Parth Mallayya Samudaya, Sudagadsidda, Bhajantri, Veshagararu, Hakkipikki and other nomadic communities are actively involved in the theatre initiative.
Geetha, a member of the Sudagadsidda community living in one of the tandas in Koppal says, Sheela has changed the way women address their problems. The issue of alcohol addiction and domestic violence is prevalent in her community. A play on this subject that was put up in the locality resulted in protests against an illegal liquor shop, and its temporary closure.
Narrating another incident, Geetha recalls, “One day Sheela Akka came to our tanda and sat with the women to discuss the issues we are facing. On the spot, she knit a skit and asked us to perform,” Geetha believes that performing the skit and delivering the dialogues led each woman to introspect. “With every word, we understood the mistakes we were making in letting problems go unchecked,” she says. After that, when they faced abuse, the women began to report it to the police and take action. Such incidents have since reduced to a great extent.
Social activist and author Allamaprabhu Betadur says Sheela has brought a silent revolution in the lives of women and children belonging to nomadic communities, backward classes and Scheduled Castes. “She has inspired many to stand up against oppression,” he says.
Now, Sheela, along with a few volunteers like Geetha, has formed Sahaja Samskruthika Vedike, a threatre group. For the past 15 years, they have been creating spaces for theatre-based interventions on caste-based discrimination, women’s ambitions, sexual harassment, child abuse, menstrual hygiene and child marriage.
“I do not want to be their leader. I want them (women from the nomadic communities) to lead their fight and get justice,” says Sheela. The performer chose art, particularly street play and drama, to put across her message in a more impactful manner. “I believe songs and portrayals of characters imprint the message in our hearts more than a hundred speeches,” she adds.
Basavaraj Hiremath, a businessman and member of Sahaja Trust, commends Sheela for choosing open places and villages where a large number of people can congregate. “She has been taking theatre to those who did not know it before, and helps them fall in love with it,” he says.
Lessons learnt through life and her mother have led Sheela to champion the cause of women and children. Born to an inter-faith labourer couple in Kodagu, Sheela was outspoken since childhood. “As a child, I saw my mother suffer due to my father’s alcohol addiction and abuse. I always used to think to myself about why women need to suffer silently, and not fight back. Why not question the oppressor?” she asks. This inquisitiveness brought her to literature and theatre.
A stint at Ninasam Theatre Repertory at Heggodu, Shivamogga changed her life, as she not only found her future life partner, noted playwright Halkurike Shivashankar, but also her true calling – the stage. Her uncomplicated body language, voice modulation and command over language helped her bag one lead role after another, not just on stage, but also on the small screen. She has acted in plays such as Samsaradadalli Sanidappa, Prameelarjuneeyam, Singaravva Matthu Aramane, Deviri and in some serials.
Working with NGOs in Bengaluru helped her reconnect with her passion of empowering children and women. “Kids who did not open up with counsellors and their parents used to spill out their sorrow on stage and express their deep fears,” she says.
Sheela has been training amateur artistes, mostly teachers and lecturers, to stage plays. Pushpa Nilugual, a social worker who was part of one, says Sheela does not compromise on the message. “All her plays send out a strong message on caste discrimination, harassment and other social evils,” she says.
In spite of working with limited financial resources, she has been encouraging artistes, especially women, by felicitating them with an award, Sahaja Rangapurskara since 2014. She also organises theatre festivals bringing the best of theatre to Koppal.
“What makes Sheela standout from other directors and theatre personalities is her conviction to use unpolished artistes to bring out a topic that strikes a chord with local communities,” says Vijayanagara Sri Krishnadevaraya University Performing Arts and Drama Department Guest Lecturer Annaji Krishna Reddy. He adds through her research and by bringing the nomadic people on stage she is not only reviving their art but also helping these nomadic community artists get their due recognition.
Sheela says there is a slow but definite change in the way theatre is being perceived by the people of Koppal now. Even amateur artistes are starting to realise that Theatre is not a medium of entertainment but a platform to bring changes.