An audience of about 700 people, ranging from six years of age to 60, crowd around an open area in a slum in the heart of Chennai, India, where a group of young artists perform a street play on hygiene and sanitation. The audience is soon engrossed by the play, which is peppered with identifiable emotions – love, family, comedy, day-to-day strife and, of course, popular Tamil film music. The play ends, but the audience wants more. The theater group from Nalamdana, a local NGO, promises to be back the next day for discussions around the play and its themes. For Nalamdana’s theater group comprised of trained actors, often from the communities they work in, it is yet another satisfying performance.
In February 2012, Mumbai’s art aficionados attended an exhibition put together by the NGO, Sneha. Designed and crafted by women from Dharavi, the exhibition entitled Dekha Undekha (“Seen Unseen”) revealed their points-of-view on home and life. It was a stark display of self-expression that was both cathartic and educational. The artwork is hard-hitting: it starts with the toran (traditional decoration at doors and entrances of Indian homes): for these women from Dharavi, the toran symbolically means leaving negativity outside before one enters the home. A gas stove exhibit, called Mere Jeevan Saathi (“My Life Partner”), represents the kitchen, an area of the home that gives these women joy as they are happiest feeding their families. However, it is also a scene of violence since most severe cases of documented domestic violence involve burn injuries. The artist wrapped a belan (rolling pin used for Indian flatbread or chapattis) in barbed wire to further represent how it becomes a weapon in the hands of an inebriated husband.
In a trend that is entertaining, innovative and highly effective, organizations like Sneha and Nalamdana are reviving street art and theater, which are part of traditional Indian folk art. These initiatives are well-crafted campaigns to not only engender self-expression and drive debate, but also educate the poor on health and welfare-related issues that range from the everyday – hand washing, boiling drinking water and using toilets – to the more critical – coping with domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, female feticide and sexual abuse.
Entertainment: A Universal Language
A significant challenge development sector stakeholders face in making impact is that of educating the poor about the benefits of positive behavior change. Understandably, education needs differ from issue to issue; in the case of domestic violence, urban poor communities are aware that victims are largely women and children. These communities, however, lack a collective voice and forum to share their experiences and learn coping mechanisms. With issues like open defecation or boiling drinking water, the beneficiaries need to understand the link between poor hygiene and disease, mortality and healthcare costs. As Uttara Bharath Kumar, founder of Nalamdana, says, “They will not simply start boiling water because they are told to do so because they cannot see the germs. They have to be educated about it in a way they can understand its significance.” Practitioners believe that change cannot be managed without personal and community will. Priya Agrawal, senior advisor at Sneha and project head for Dekha Undekha, adds, “The beneficiaries have to identify their problems and find solutions. Attitude and habits are very difficult to change, and it cannot happen without them wishing it.”
Clearly, then, there is “science” behind the art. Sneha adopts the Appreciative Inquiry approach, which focuses on areas that are working and builds on those strengths. Sneha’s campaigns include interactive discussions, street plays, brochures and posters. Their youth group puts together plays that draw from the Theater of the Oppressed (TEO) approach8 where plays are deliberately left open-ended, and the audience is invited to become a part of the play at the end, deciding how an issue is to be resolved. Agrawal explains, “In this way, they own the problem and the solution.”
Nalamdana aims to ensure that their work is “strategic, expert and scientific, researched and evaluated.” Bharath Kumar states, “Most people tend to consider communication last, that is often the problem. Organizations create brochures, but the poor communities comprise those who can read as well as those who cannot. Entertainment, on the other hand, is a universal language, and it thrives in India. Hence, street theater is one way to communicate effectively – to do that though, the theater has to be high quality and the group needs to specialize in this form of communication.”
Behind the Scenes
While these street plays are entertaining, they are not easy productions. A typical play by Nalamdana begins with community research to understand the current level of knowledge about an issue. Before conceptualizing the play, the team zeroes in on a positive action that the community is not performing based on their discussions with community members. The team then builds a story and a play around the issue at-hand. For example, the Nalamdana team did a play driven by the positive action of boiling water before drinking it. Pre-play research indicates that people understand that they need to boil water to purify it, but do not do so in practice. Further conversations revealed that they do not like the taste of “smoky” boiled water; since most households use charcoal or kerosene as fuel, this changes the taste of water. Armed with this insight, the team tailored their play to deliver two messages – one that it was not worth risking health for taste, and two, that there are other ways to purify water, such as straining it through several layers of clean cloth or using a water purifier.
In contrast to the studied approach adopted by Sneha and Nalamdana for their street plays, the Dekha Undekha project evolved from three separate projects by Sneha. The original intent of these projects was to impart useful skills (i.e., quilt-making, photography, ceramics) to women from Mumbai’s slums and, as a next step, use these skills to help them express themselves and get them to discuss issues that affect them. Says Agrawal, “All the creations were so beautiful, and we felt there was a theme and a story to tell – this was the genesis of the exhibition.”
Scalable Impact through Innovative Communication
Sneha and Nalamdana have demonstrated the versatility and efficacy of innovative communication tools. Both organizations have programs that also use theater as therapy for catharsis and healing emotional trauma. R. Jeevanandham, director of Nalamdana, shares an example of how theater helped coastal communities devastated by the 2004 tsunami cope with grief and loss. Aside from its street theater work, Nalamdana runs Thendral, a radio cable channel at Tambaram Hospital where TB and HIV patients are treated. While hospital staff do speak to patients and families about the diseases and their treatment, they are unable to devote more time to in-depth counseling. The Nalamdana team leveraged the cable radio concept to educate patients and families on their afflictions. The channel offers music played on request from listeners, interspersed with short information sessions such as interviews with an expert doctor on staff. Evaluation studies indicate that patients and their family members who were exposed to these programs demonstrated higher levels of understanding of their condition and a more positive attitude.
Sneha also offers a program that supports survivors of violence. They are offered crisis aid in terms of medical attention, dealing with the police, counseling and help in negotiating for non-violence. This program was inspired by requests and suggestions to Sneha from the community, including the police, to consider a program that actively educates on coping with violence. The Sneha team focused on youth aged 15-22 years and provided a basket of training that includes sensitization, personality development and theater training. Today, a group of 35 committed youth from the community work with Sneha to create plays. Says Dr. Nayreen Daruwala, program director of Prevention of Violence against Women & Children at Sneha, “Today [the community youth] create the scripts and the plays. We see so much improvement in them and in the way they interact with their parents, siblings and friends that it is immensely satisfying.”
Evaluation studies show that these programs are highly effective in terms of awareness and recall. Nalamdana conducts its own post-play evaluations, which includes discussions and surveys to assess and reinforce awareness of the issues that a play dealt with. Follow-up evaluations track knowledge retention and internalization, as well as positive action taken by the community.
For Agrawal, the Dekha Undekha project was an eye opener. She says, “These ladies are not trained in associating abstract with the real or in creativity – it just flowed out of them. Initially, they waited for instructions from us, but then the ideas kept tumbling out and they owned each exhibit – the confidence they gained from the project was amazing.” Interestingly, the project also imparted leadership skills to the women. Agrawal adds, “In each of the groups, unaided by us, we saw ‘technical’ leaders emerge. They were the in-house experts the other women collaborated with to come up with new designs or ideas for their exhibits.”
There is plenty of talent in the community, agree Bharath Kumar and Agrawal. Funding, however, is always something they have to seek with each new campaign. Bharath Kumar explains, “The team never sleeps easy. They have to work hard for funds.” There is vast potential, then, for organizations like Sneha and Nalamdana to work with other social impact stakeholders. Social enterprises catering to low-income target groups spend a substantial amount of time and effort on educating the poor about their offerings and could use an innovative approach. From the private sector, an increasing number of organizations are now seeking interesting avenues to invest funds set aside for CSR initiatives. Given their success in delivering impact at scale and the ability to go viral quickly, it is time for art and street theater to come into the spotlight, and grow as a viable, effective communication medium for the BoP and urban poor populations.