India has an alarmingly high rate of HIV and AIDS. The key to prevention is education. However, finding ways to educate the masses poses a massive challenge. James Lees meets the Chakarathalvar Performance Troupe, an inspiring group from Madurai who travel the country performing a novel blend of theatre, song and dance to connect with audiences from all walks of life
HIV and AIDS continue to be a serious medical and social issue in India. While the country has spent millions on advertising and medical treatments for the disease, India still has a high infection rate and awareness is low, especially in the smaller towns and villages. According to the 2010 UNAIDS Global HIV/AIDS survey, India recorded approximately 140,000 new cases of HIV in 2009 and has a total of approximately 2.4 million people infected with the disease. India has the third highest rate in the world, behind South Africa (5.6 million) and Nigeria (3.3 million).
The good news, though, is that the Indian Government and non-government organisations (NGOs) are constantly searching for new ways to help in addressing the issue. One of the more innovative approaches is performance art from the Chakarathalvar Performance Troupe aimed at increasing awareness and education of the disease throughout the country, especially in the smaller towns and villages where more traditional forms of education aren’t as effective.
Originally from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, the 15-person Chakarathalvar Performance Troupe travel around the country for up to three months at a time and use a unique interactive blend of street plays, songs and folk dance to speak to audiences on a smaller and more intimate scale. They perform in schools, universities, local markets, town halls and other public areas to educate people of all ages, sexes and castes.
As I arrive in Kottaimedu, a small village on the outskirts of Madurai, I am greeted by two young men in their early twenties. Balaji is the president of the group and his close friend, Sekar, is the secretary. The troupe has just returned from New Delhi and is in the early stages of a 50-day schedule of performances around Tamil Nadu. They will perform for up to seven hours a day at different times from 3 am to midnight. In total, they will conduct 146 performances at various locations across the state, reaching an audience of over 50,000 people. It is a gruelling schedule, but as Balaji says, “We are artistes and we love to perform… It keeps us alive.”
“Our families have been performing folk dance for nine generations and have performed all over Tamil Nadu,” Balaji says. “Sekar and I got involved when we were seven and have been keeping the dance alive ever since.”
In 2006, Balaji, Sekar and their group of performers were approached by the Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society about the possibility of turning their performances into HIV educational pieces. “The society had heard about us and was keen for us to travel around Tamil Nadu promoting HIV awareness,” Sekar says. “HIV is a serious problem in India, especially in Tamil Nadu. It has the second highest rate of HIV in India and we saw this as a chance to do a service for our community.”
Soon after, the group was recruited by other NGOs such as the Dhan Foundation, and began travelling all over India. Equipped with information supplied to them by the NGOs, they utilised their performance art to deliver an entertaining and inoffensive method of HIV education for the people.
“India is a conservative country,” Sekar says. “Ten years ago, HIV was considered a sin in many parts and people with this sickness were cast out of villages.” Balaji believes that this is why the Chakarathalvar troupe is such an effective tool. “We speak directly to the people in ways that they understand,” he says. Sekar agrees, “They are engaged and we connect more easily. They won’t sit in front of the TV or read newspapers to learn about this type of thing.”
Throughout the year, the Chakarathalvar Music Troupe will perform in villages, towns and cities for high school, college and university students, office workers, merchants, farmers, lorry drivers and even sex workers. Their audience is incredibly diverse and each performance is tailored accordingly, often with only a few days to prepare. For older audiences, they incorporate folk dance into the performance. Younger audiences respond well to street plays and comedy skits.
“Our message is mostly about what the disease is, and how it is contracted through things like drug use and unprotected sex,” Sekar says. But he is well aware of the conservative nature of Indian culture and the need for discretion when determining what message is conveyed. “Sex workers will be encouraged to practice safe sex and avoid drug use,” he says. “While we talk to high school and college students on the benefits of self-discipline and not having sex before marriage. “We cannot control the feelings of younger people, but we can teach them to make wise decisions about their relationships,” Sekar says.
Each performance or street play can last for up to an hour and, depending on the size of the town, can attract an audience between 300 and 1000 people. They will perform in any public space that doesn’t directly affect the people in the area, and have been found performing outside even in bus stations and airports. The typical places, however, are local markets or town halls.
“We will either be allocated a space to perform or we will seek something suitable,” Sekar says.“ Then we’ll form a line behind Balaji and dance around the area. Balaji or I will beat the drum and call out to the people saying ‘Hey did you hear there’s a street performance on today?’ We continue this conversation amongst the troupe and this gains the attention of the people,” he says. “They get curious and head over.”
HIV / AIDS expenditure in India
The 2010 UNAIDS Global HIV report provides further evidence that India is not spending enough money on health issues such as HIV and AIDS. The new Domestic Investment Priority Index (DIPI), according to UNAIDS, “attempts to measure the extent of investment priority given by governments to support their national AIDS response. The Index is calculated by dividing the percentage of government revenue directed to the AIDS response by the population with HIV prevalence. A high value usually indicates a high level of priority. A low value indicates a low priority.”
According to UNAIDS, India spent $140 Million US Dollars on HIV and AIDS programmes in 2009, down from $145 million US Dollars in 2008. Of this, 16 percent comes from public revenue, while the majority is funded from international sources such as NGOs and other health funds. India’s 2009 HIV investment represents a DIPI level of 0.07 percent, well below the 0.35 median of the 121 countries surveyed and a strong indication that the Indian Government should be allocating more funds to HIV and AIDS related programmes.
The hardest part for the Chakarathalvan Music Troupe is not getting people to their performances. Curiosity is normally enough. “The hardest part is getting the audience to engage with us,” Sekan says. “We spend the first ten minutes of the performance talking to the audience, joking with them and performing a few comedy skits,” he says. “Then we tell them to focus on the performance as we will ask questions at the end. If they answer correctly, they get a prize.”
Each question to the audience focuses on HIV and the topics explored within the performance. However, many people are reluctant to answer the questions for fear of ridicule by their peers. “This happens quite often,” Sekar, says, “So we always have one of our team members posing as one of the audience. If no one answers the first question, our team member will. The audience sees them receiving the prize and this in turn encourages them to answer the questions,” he says.
Performing in front of a large group of people is not an easy task, especially if the audience doesn’t know why they are there or cannot understand the language. “Performing in the small towns and villages, especially outside Tamil Nadu, can be quite difficult,” Sekar explains. “The people generally are not well educated and do not understand our language so our performance message has to be quite basic, but still entertaining. We have had people walk out and there have also been times when we’ve had beer bottles and other objects thrown at us.” Despite these challenges, Sekar and Balaji maintain their love of performing. “Our goal for each performance is to change the mind of at least a few people,” Balaji says. “If we can do that and encourage at least one or two people to seek out more information on HIV or to come see us after the show, then we have done our job and we are happy,” he says. “If we’re faced with difficulties on stage, it spurs us on to do better next time.”
According to Balaji, the biggest threat to the troupe is not the audience, but a lack of funding. “We only receive Rs. 300 per person per day, for all food, accommodation and travel,” he says. “We would love to do this job full time but we just don’t have enough money.”
Balaji says he and Sekar take up the odd mechanic job to help support them while they are travelling around India but many of the troupe members have families to support and cannot commit to the group on a more permanent basis. “We love this job so much and we have such a talented group,” he says. “But it is very hard when our members don’t have enough money to support their families.”
The future is uncertain for groups like the Chakarathalvan Music Troupe. The cost of living is increasing and the financial support they receive from NGOs is not. To raise additional funds, Balaji and Sekar are trying to set up a trust fund, an independent source of funding for the troupe but this too is proving difficult. “First we need to find a donor,” Sekan says. “We are knocking on doors, asking people and businesses for donations, but first they must trust us, and to develop trust it takes time,” he says.
On a national scale, both Sekar and Balaji believe education is key to fighting health issues in India. But while the Chakarathalvan Music Troupe does a good job of talking to everyday people, they want to see the government doing more to educate people through education in schools and colleges. The hard part, they believe, is India’s conservative culture. “Many schools hesitate to provide sex and drug education because India’s culture is conservative,” he says. “We need to overcome this barrier.”
Balaji says he wants to see the Indian government doing more to help with what he views as the real cause of all major health issues in India: poverty. “Poverty is the root of all issues in India,” he says. “Once we eradicate poverty, then we can start to do more to tackle HIV and other diseases in this country.” In the meantime, it seems Balaji, Sekar and the rest of the Chakarathalvar Music Troupe will continue to train and bus their way around India on Rs. 300 a day each, keeping their art alive, and, hopefully, some of their fellow countrymen.
Once our interview is over, I ask Balaji and Sekan to act out one of their street performances and they are more than happy to oblige. First they begin with a welcoming dance, inspired by the folk dance of their ancestors. Then they break into a highly entertaining conversation that alternates between themselves and the audience. Through a translator, I am told that they are welcoming me to today’s performance about HIV and AIDS and are encouraging me to listen closely as I will be tested at the end. The two men take turns walking around the stage, throwing the odd quip at each other and the audience in a highly entertaining and jovial manner. They bounce around the stage with energy and enthusiasm.
Their passion for their art radiates from the stage. One can easily see why they have had such success in raising HIV awareness throughout India. Both men demand attention on the stage and are at ease with their performing roles. A stage comprised of 15 such talented actors would indeed be a sight to behold.