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Breaking HIV/AIDS taboos through folk art

Nov 03, 2011

A team of artists is spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS using folk theatre across 156 villages in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu and breaking myths about the disease to eliminate discrimination.

At sunset in a Madurai village, as the cattle come home, a sudden rattle shakes up the scene. From nowhere, a van decked up with colourful posters and photographs arrives and before the people at the mandhai can guess what it's about, jingling anklets have drawn curious onlookers.


To the villagers in Naavinipatti near Melur, it looks as if a song and dance is in store. As the performers get ready, a person in the capacity of village head tells them not to use their parai and thappattam.

The players obligingly put aside those noisy instruments and start performing only with salangais. A booming voice announces, “Thaimaargale… We are here to sing and dance, but keep your ears attuned.” They take their positions, and with swaying music and energetic steps, they talk about HIV. The hovering crowd is by now rooted in place.

This 15-member team of Sakkarathalvar Kalai Kuzhu has travelled the length and breadth of Madurai district, visiting 156 villages. They have danced barefoot on dusty roads to tell more than half a lakh people about HIV/AIDS.

Not all villagers are open to discussing HIV/AIDS. “We need lot of patience to be part of this cultural team,” says S. Balaji, 24, who joined the troupe when he was barely 15. “We have no option but to remain as cool as a cucumber.”

They sing for young people, pregnant women and everyone else in the village. They sing about the importance of HIV tests for pregnant women, about the ways in which HIV spreads, about being careful with used syringes. They also tell villagers about counselling and testing centres functioning in the district.

“People believe that HIV/AIDS is a taboo,” says P. Sekar, another member of the team, “and they often associate AIDS only with immoral behaviour. We want to insist on the point that the virus spreads not only through unprotected sex and multiple partners but also through used and infected syringes.”

He says sometimes the villagers are touchy and drive the dancers away, saying the village does not have a single infected person. Near Usilampatti, one inebriated villager slung a sickle. In another village the team members were left to pass a rainy night under an open sky just because they spoke about HIV/AIDS.

Sekar feels the villagers behave that way because they are either ignorant about HIV/AIDS or afraid of it. “And this is a challenge. We not only educate them but also steer clear of all apprehensions,” says Sekar.

When Sekar enrolled himself with the team for HIV/AIDS project, people made fun of him. His parents vehemently opposed the idea and asked him to leave the team. After attending a workshop organized by the Development of Humane Action Foundation, he decided to educate people about the infection and help them to come out of the mire of discrimination that overwhelms the infected.

The team performs 12 forms of karagattam besides a series of various forms of folk dances. To make the session more interactive they hold a quiz on HIV/AIDS for viewers, who might just walk away with a prize for a right answer. “Quizzing session is like the testing moment for us, where we can apprise and gauge our own performances,” says Sekar.

Though the team has about 30 members aged 24 to 30, only 15 of them participate in the awareness programmes. Among them are students, carpenters, farmers and daily wage labourers.

It is the love for folk arts that binds them together and makes them invincible. Whenever they are assigned a job, the team members discuss and draft scripts and lyrics that will suit the audience. They also visit tea shops in that particular village to study the people's mentality and attitude. This study, they believe, helps them perform more effectively.

“It is a privilege to be part of the team in creating awareness through folk media,” says Balaji. “Folk art is close to my heart and soul.” In fact, the team has turned down film offers when they felt they were not given an opportunity to create awareness on issues closer to their hearts.

Even before the team got roped into various awareness programmes supported by clubs and by government, the members had a penchant for social issues. During performances at temple festivals, some members sing and dance about the health hazards of smoking and drinking.

“Our masters trained us in various forms of folk arts and it is because of them that we are of some use to the society today,” says Balaji.

An hour-long session of dance and music, loaded with information, has come to an end and curious villagers throng the team with their doubts and unanswered questions. And the mission continues.

Short takes

Sakkarathalvar Kalai Kuzhu was started in 2000 at Kottaimedu near Alanganallur by M. Chokkalingam and Kalaisudarmani Solaimalai. It started out with 22 members.

They perform 16 kinds of dances including kaliyal attam, kokkili attam, maadu attam, kilavan kilavi attam, karuppasamy attam, maankombu attam. They also perform fiery feats.

The team has performed at Chennai Sangamam and Semmozhi Maanadu and also in the films Nadodigal, Kaalai, Uliyin Osai and Ajantha, and in the television serial Madurai.

Source : The Hindu
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