Ruma Rani, a native of Bangladesh, was undergoing treatment at a private hospital in Chennai for impotence. After a week, when she realised that she could never conceive, she ran away from the hospital and jumped in front of a moving train at Korukkupet suburban railway station on May 6, 2021. Even though her husband Arun Chandra reached the city the next day, he left by the 5 pm flight without waiting for Ruma’s burial.
In another incident, a live stream of the burial of the mortal remains of migrant worker Kharga Sarma of (Borigaon) Assam, who died in the city, was sent to his wife who couldn’t afford to travel down to Chennai from Borigaon.
Members of “Thinai Nila Vaasigal”, a Chennai-based theatre troupe, are not new to such incidents. They have buried more than 750 abandoned and unclaimed dead bodies in the city so far since the troupe was launched in 2016, as they believe that it’s part of their curriculum.
The troupe buries the abandoned and unclaimed bodies after getting clearance from the concerned police station. “Once the formalities are over, we take the dead body to the Moolakothalam public burial ground near Basin Bridge where we bury it. We mostly bury the dead bodies to avoid legal complications in future if any,” says Bagrudeen, director of Thinai Nila Vaasigal.
There, however, are exceptions. The troupe had to cremate the body of Bangladeshi native Ruma Rani because her husband insisted that it should be burned as per Hindu rites.
A week ago, the troupe buried the abandoned body of a female infant who was barely a day old. “It was shocking. We talk a lot about female infanticide, but this was a clear case pointing to the brutal practice in our own city,” says Bagrudeen.
While many NGOs and other organisations have been taking similar initiatives across the country, what sets Thinai Nila Vaasigal apart from them is that it is done by artists.
What inspired Bagrudeen and his troupe to cremate unclaimed and abandoned dead bodies? “A friend who worked in a morgue once told me about the unclaimed bodies inside it. Many are being kept inside for a long time due to various reasons. It disturbed me a lot,” he says. When Bagrudeen asked his friend the reason behind the delay in burying the bodies, the latter told him that a long list of formalities is a major deterrent. Bagrudeen wanted to do something to solve this. But he got the opportunity only after coming to Chennai.
After completing his post-graduation in MSC microbiology from the American College, Madurai, Bagrudeen joined dramatist and playwright Murugabhoopathi to train as an artist in his troupe Manalmagudi in Kovilpatti. He came to Chennai in 2015. “In Chennai, I got influenced by activist Anandi Ammal who was cremating unclaimed dead bodies in the city. When I launched Thinai Nila Vaasigal, I included social work as part of the acting curriculum,” he said.
Today, the troupe not only cremates unclaimed dead bodies, but also conducts classes for the children of daily wagers. As a theatre troupe, Thinai Nila Vaasigal has produced many street and theatre plays.
As crematoriums in the city are getting crowded due to the sudden rise in COVID-related deaths, cremation of unclaimed bodies has become difficult. “When the pandemic broke out first in 2020, some people who died of COVID-19 were cremated at Moolakothalam public burial ground. But the burial ground is not being used for cremating the dead bodies of those who died of COVID-19 now. The problem now we face is that the burial ground lacks space as it faces threat from land grabbers,” he says.
“If we dig more than three feet, we may find remains of an old burial. So we have to be a little careful while digging. We hope the state government will take immediate steps to maintain the burial ground in Moolakothalam,” he adds.
Bagrudeen and members of his troupe have come across unclaimed and abandoned dead bodies in various conditions. When they receive a body from the morgue after completing the formalities, most of them would have started decomposing. “We are used to the intense stench and odour (of dead bodies) since we started cremating abandoned and unclaimed dead bodies in 2016,” he said. However, of late, they are facing another issue. “Many ask us to cremate the body of their beloved mainly because they don’t have money to do it,” says Bagrudeen.
A month ago, when the wife of an auto-rickshaw driver died, he asked the troupe to bury her mortal remains as he didn’t have the money to do it. When the dead body was carried in an ambulance, her two sons, aged 8 and 10 respectively, ran after it. They followed their mother’s body till the burial ground. “There are many cases like this. Many approach us because they don’t have money to conduct cremation. Joblessness due to COVID-19 is the main reason,” says Bagrudeen.
The members of the troupe are also involved in distributing provisions and food packets to health workers and those who work in the crematoriums.
Thinai Nila Vaasigal, which comprises 25 artists ironically doesn’t have a regular place for rehearsal. They do it at public playgrounds and parks. “We don’t care about our comfort. We are here to help our fellow beings. We will continue the job. And for us, humanity is art,” said Bagrudeen who recently released a film titled Pablo Nedruda based on the last days of the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet.