Health on Stage Open Day was an event organised by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF). Held in Bangalore at KROSS, the event was the closing session of a 6-week project that brought together 21 international volunteers from 14 countries across Europe and Asia with local communities in Chennai, Bangalore and Mysore. The Health on Stage Open Day was co-organised with the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS) and Field Services & Inter-Cultural Learning (FSL) - India, to commemorate the United Nations Volunteers’ (UNV) 10th Anniversary of the International Year of Volunteering.
Health on Stage was a project that used forum theatre as a creative medium to foster a dialogue on public health. As one of the volunteers from the Philippines said, “Unlike educational theatre, forum theatre uses the power of music, dance and body language. This, despite all cultural and language differences instantly connected us with the communities as we performed.”
According to Jaya Iyer, a forum theatre trainer in India, “Forum theatre has been used mainly for protest art in India until now. Young volunteers will now focus on public health, with all its social and cultural dimensions in the specific locations. The performances are unique, courageous, and, like all creative acts, offer the potential of real change.”
The theme of the forum theatre performances was water-related diseases, which are a major concern in underprivileged urban, sub-urban and rural areas in South India. The concerns of lack of adequate hygiene and sanitation facilities, open defecation and unclean environments were highlighted for the communities as the volunteers directly interacted with them before every performance. The three performances tackled different aspects of water-related diseases in the larger context of public health.
The issue of language also came up in the ensuing discussion at the Open Day, where some of the international volunteers said they had reservations from the start about whether there would be a communication gap between them and the local communities. The 21 international volunteers were split into 3 groups for this reason, and each of the 3 groups had local community participants and self help group members that helped the international volunteers integrate with the local communities they were performing for and interacting with. The group of volunteers in Bangalore worked with urban slum dwellers while the Mysore group worked with tribal villages and the Chennai group with industrial workers.
The field experiences that were shared with the audience at the Open Day showed the enthusiasm of the volunteers, and the noise they created was enough to keep any audience engaged. The international volunteers were a mix of students, professionals and theatre practitioners who are taking their experiences back to their home countries and applying them. Felimon Blanco, a theatre practitioner from the Philippines and one of the 21 volunteers said, “After this experience in India I will be training free arts to young people in six villages in Bagadian in The Philippines as the Community Arts Training Programme."
Some interesting points that came up in the Q&A session at the end, were the efficacy of using a medium like forum theatre for an issue like water and sanitation-related diseases in the context of public health. Many call it a larger development issue, while others maintain that stopping open defecation, for example, is a behavioural issue more than anything else. A question that arose out of this event was whether any real change would come about, which is what FSL-India will continue to monitor in the three areas where the volunteers worked.