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'Nukkad Natak' - street plays for AIDS awareness

Aug 27, 2010

A theatre group in the state of Uttar Pradesh in eastern India performs street plays based on social issues. The troupe, in partnership with the special AIDS awareness train, currently focuses on sensitising local people about HIV/AIDS.

Chopan: Neelam Suraiya, 40, loves her work. She educates people through street plays. A member of the Sanskriti Sewa Sansthan, Kanpur, a theatre group that performs plays on various social themes in different cities in Uttar Pradesh (UP), these days Suraiya, along with her troupe, is completely focused on one task: Sensitising people about HIV/AIDS through gripping narratives on stage.

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Recently, Suraiya’s group performed at a railway platform in Chopan in Sonebhadra district of UP, along with several other groups. Their audience was the eager crowd that had gathered at the station to greet the Red Ribbon Express - a special AIDS awareness train – that was flagged off on a statewide three-month-long sojourn from this quaint small town. Roped in by Uttar Pradesh State Aids Control Society (UPSACS) for an awareness campaign on the disease, the seven-member group reached out to the people through their thought-provoking play woven around the various aspects of the disease.

According to Suraiya, “Theatre was always meant to have a role in social awakening and reformation, so why should it be any different now? It is the best medium to reach as many people as possible to sensitise them towards a problem like HIV/AIDS, all the more so in areas which have high illiteracy levels.If you look back into history you will realise that whenever society faced a crisis it was theatre that became the agent of awakening and action. The Red Ribbon Express (RRE) is a concept, which needs widespread awareness and our theatre group is happy to be a part of it.” The RRE is an AIDS awareness train that aims to spread awareness on HIV, promoting safe behavioural practices and fighting stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.

Although Suraiya’s group has been doing over 100 shows a month on social issues of late, the concept of social theatre is not new to artistes in the state. Most people associated with social theatre consider it a feather in their cap to act out messages that help save lives.

"Social theatre is a medium to address issues like HIV/AIDS that people are worried about but cannot express their views on, publicly"

Mahesh Varma, team leader of Sanskriti Sewa Sansthan, says, “Social theatre is a medium to address issues like HIV/AIDS that people are worried about but cannot express their views on, publicly. Theatre gives them the opportunity to do that and much more. It addresses the issue directly and also motivates the process of problem solving among the masses. The play we performed at Chopan raised questions about HIV/AIDS that needed to be answered by the people. This in turn motivated them to seek the answers to most of the questions we raised in our street play regarding protection and guidance about the disease on the Red Ribbon Express.” The RRE provides on board counselling.

Associated with social theatre for over 25 years, Varma has been performing plays on polio awareness, drug addiction, government schemes and youth-based issues among which HIV/AIDS is a priority for him.

Theatre person, Shripal Gaur, 40, of Lucknow-based Yayawar Rangmandal, whose group also performed small skits based on AIDS at Chopan, adds, “It is possible to break many myths with the help of social theatre and we have been doing that. I remember a play we did on organ donation in a village where there was a strong belief that anyone who donates his eyes after death would be born blind in his next birth. This had been discouraging many to pledge their eyes. Through the play we de-conditioned them. At Chopan, too, our play dispelled the myths associated with contracting HIV/AIDS and the stigma attached to it. The response was phenomenal. A number of HIV positive couples came up to us and asked us questions on the topic and how they could get counselling on the Red Ribbon Express. We could guide them.”

Most artistes present at Chopan had similar reactions to report and they were immensely enthused by the response. Of course, the central and state government agencies associated with the RRE had hoped for this – which was the reason why they had roped in these theatre groups – but the reaction surpassed even their expectation.

Now they have decided to include more on-platform activities, as part of the RRE campaign. Eminent and veteran theatre persons from the New Delhi-based National School of Drama (NSD) and Bhartendu Natya Akademi in Uttar Pradesh have started working on scripting a play on this theme.

Tripurari Sharma, Associate Professor, NSD, is not all surprised that theatre has effectively reached out to so many people. In fact, she feels that including ‘nukkad nataks’ (street plays) is a crucial step in the right direction. “It is important because theatre goes beyond words and it can bring out dimensions that builds a direct connect with people. The medium itself is significant as it deals with people and their lives,” she says.

"The basic gist of the play, will be to encourage the general population to learn from positive people on how to bring more meaning into their own lives despite all the challenges."

But with a theme as sensitive as HIV/AIDS awareness, how does Sharma plan to develop a skit that will get the message across to random crowds that will gather on platforms where the RRE halts? She says, “The play will focus on the lives of HIV positive people and the strength they have shown in overcoming the problems and stigma they have faced. I want to bring out the incredible fact that despite doctors giving some victims only a few years to live they have survived many years beyond that. Then I want to showcase the stories of children who are born positive and how they grow up searching for some meaning in their life and survive in a society so skewed in its ideas about such children.”

The basic gist of the play, according to Sharma, will be to encourage the general population to learn from positive people on how to bring more meaning into their own lives despite all the challenges. “This, I guess, is what we all are searching for, too,” she concludes.

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