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Spreading pandemic awareness through art

Sanjeet Bagcchi | Updated on October 09, 2020 Published on October 09, 2020

Message on the wall: A mural in Kochi, Kerala, draws attention to Covid-19 and safety measures   -  thulasi kakkat

Organisations across the country are using art forms to develop social campaigns on the Covid-19 pandemic

* “It is easier to catch the attention of the people through symbolism, music, drama and other forms of creative arts,” explains Shantanu Panja

* Not surprisingly, doctors are focusing not just on medication, but on prevention as well. They are also busting myths and spreading awareness about SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen causing Covid-19, through cultural activities.

Jatras are a big draw in rural Bengal. With elaborate costumes and melodramatic lines, the plays usually revolve around mythology or stories of palace intrigue. The popular cultural form, however, has a different narrative this season: The performances are driving home messages about Covid-19.

And it’s not just jatra. With street plays, dances and songs, volunteers are coming together under the leadership of the non-governmental organisation Covid Care Network to demystify a virus that has been wreaking havoc across the world. The Kolkata-based network consists of doctors, former Covid-19 patients, actors and a host of others such as mountaineers, models and students.

In India, Covid-19 has infected 6.83 million people and had, till October 7, killed 1,05,526 patients. Not surprisingly, doctors are focusing not just on medication, but on prevention as well. They are also busting myths and spreading awareness about SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen causing Covid-19, through cultural activities.

“It is easier to catch the attention of the people through symbolism, music, drama and other forms of creative arts,” explains Shantanu Panja, a Kolkata-based ENT and head and neck surgeon affiliated to the Apollo Gleneagles Hospital.

We shall overcome — the global anthem made popular by American protest singer Pete Seeger — wielded its magic in Kolkata’s Jadavpur area last month when young singers and actors of the network raised the issue of prevention and stigmatisation. Along with jatras, Chhau dance — with its spectacular masks and headgear, popular in parts of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha — is being performed to underscore the need for safety.

In a street play in south Kolkata, actors spoke about the importance of washing hands and wearing masks to combat the virus. In one show held in a suburb, a performer enacting the role of the virus, said: “Eh! All these people are wearing masks. So, there is no point in staying here!” Many of the dialogues in the play also seek to address the issue of Covid-19 patients being stigmatised.

“Stigma related to Covid-19 should be taken care of, and the network is working on it — by generating mass awareness and dispelling misconceptions about the disease,” Diptendra Sarkar, a Kolkata-based surgeon and representative of the Covid Care Network, says. “The network also has an ambulance service and a 24-hour helpline to provide counselling on Covid-19,” he adds.

Like the network, several other organisations are melding art forms with medical knowledge to develop social campaigns about the pandemic. In the shanty towns of Chennai, transgender members of Sahodaran — an organisation that works for the LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) community — have been addressing the pandemic through a folk dance form called Kolattam.

In Kolkata, Rabindranath Tagore’s songs and poetry are being voiced by members of Disha, an organisation for breast cancer survivors, to counsel sex workers in the city about the spread and prevention of SARS-CoV-2.

“We met sex workers in Kolkata and talked to them about Covid-19 and social stigma; we also enjoyed music [with them] during the campaign. We distributed masks and pulse-oximeters,” says Disha’s founder and Kolkata-based paediatrician Agnimita Giri Sarkar.

A June 2020 study in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry had stressed the need to ramp up awareness in India about the pandemic. According to the study, “[there] is moderate awareness related to transmission and symptoms of Covid-19 among the educated population in India.” Now disparate groups are stepping into the field to make a difference. In Dehradun, the National Institute for Empowerment of People with Visual Disabilities merged Odissi dance with sign language in a video as part of an awareness generation campaign for Covid-19.

In another initiative, folk artists associated with Dastkar — a New Delhi-based non-governmental group working for and with traditional craftspeople — have produced a series of paintings in the context of the pandemic. Their paintings show mythological characters with face masks, while some works highlight the need for physical distancing and hand hygiene. The art forms used in the paintings include Madhubani of Bihar and Phad and Kavad of Rajasthan.

Cheery puppets are also doing their bit. The Tripura Puppet Theatre (TPT) is raising awareness about Covid-19 with the help of the region’s traditional putul nach (puppet dance show). The TPT has produced a video which depicts three puppets — a doctor, a patient and his wife — in a conversation on ways to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading. The clip ends with the slogan: “Stay clean and be hygienic”.

Health experts believe that cultural activities can significantly help in generating awareness and clearing common misconceptions about diseases such as Covid-19.

“These activities are likely to leave a more lasting impression than dry sermons on what to do and what not to do,” Panja holds.

Sanjeet Bagcchi is a physician and independent writer based in Kolkata

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Published on October 09, 2020
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