India Interior

A non-stop, 24-hour message marathon

Usha Rai | Updated on August 24, 2018 Published on August 24, 2018

Tell a story A street play in progress Usha Rai   -  Usha Rai

How street theatre was used to communicate on maternal health and child survival in Bhopal

A marathon it was. The 77 street plays enacted from midnight to almost the next day midnight (virtually 24 hours) across many locations in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, created a national record last month. Christened Zindagi ka Tamaasha (Theatre of life), a nukkad natak (street play) marathon, its theme was dedicated to the crucial first 1,000 days of a child’s life. A collaborative effort between voluntary youth organisation Ansh Happiness Society (AHS) and UNICEF, it was a unique way of reaching out to a diverse audience of 10,000 to 12,000 people on maternal health, infant mortality, child nourishment and development, vaccination, and care of the child for the first three years.

It was of course, back-breaking work that called for great coordination as the same team of 16 actors performed non-stop for the 24 hours, not allowing their energies to flag and maintaining the interest of the audience. Each street play was just eight minutes of an insightful, power-packed performance.

The event was initiated after several volunteers and UNICEF’s nutrition specialist for Madhya Pradesh, Dr Sameer Pawar, researched and studied children and their development in the first 1,000 days of their life. Students associated with AHS even interacted with the parents to understand how they dealt with their child’s development and health issues in this time span. The study revealed that over 236 children die every year in the State and 54 out of every 1,000 children do not live to celebrate their fifth birthday. The number of women dying in childbirth every year in the State was a staggering 3,183.

The street plays marathon addressed exactly these startling statistics and, through entertainment, spread a variety of messages crucial for maternal and child health. For one, it told the audience how mother’s milk was a complete food for the child in its first six months and mothers talking to babies while feeding them stimulated their neurons.

Another important message put out was that the mother’s first milk, Colostrum, right after childbirth, acts as a human vaccination and should not be wasted. Through a storyline, external food to the new born was strictly discouraged since it could lead to diarrhoea.

Luckily, AHS had prior experience in performing a chain of street plays. In July 2015, it had performed 27 street plays across Bhopal in one day. This time too it conjured up the energy needed to turn the marathon event into reality, using the help of 40 committed volunteers. The eight-minute script was composed by Ansh’s Sahil Khan and Samyamoy Debnath, who later directed the play as well. In addition to the creative team, there was a team of managers who located the sites, ensured good turnout, organised food and rest room facilities and liaised with the police and the State government for various clearances.

Stamina-building drill

Mohsin Khan of Ansh points out that in street plays there is no sound amplifier so the artists had to work on their vocal cords to reach out to the maximum number of people. As it was a non-stop event, they could not take the chance of forgetting the dialogues or disturbing the flow. They not only memorised and re-memorised their own dialogues, but also of every other character in the play in order to act as a backup.

For 25 days before the event, actors and volunteers were put through a stamina-building drill which comprised warm-up exercises of 10 minutes, running for an hour, 20 minutes of stretching and even learning to relax between the performances, followed by some sessions in yoga. And before the marathon began, there were health check-ups at Bhopal Care Hospital and diet charts drawn up for every participant by dietician Nidhi Shukla Pandey.

The main story revolved around a couple, Bhola and Gudiya, and their newborn baby girl, Munni. Not aware of the precautions to be taken on the birth of a newborn and believing in traditional rituals, they end up losing Munni. A sad story, but effectively performed to stir audiences. However, what still needs to be assessed is the long-term impact of the event on audiences, and the degree of recall and retention of messages given out through street theatre.

The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist

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Published on August 24, 2018
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