Please note - the expedition referenced is no longer running.
by Sara Monajem
Nalamdana translates "Are you well?" in Tamil. It is also the name of a non-governmental organization based in Chennai, whose founders were convinced of the effectiveness of street theatre for delivery of health messages to semi-literate population in the State of Tamil Nadu.
Street theatre is a popular folk art in India, has traditionally been used to dramatise mythological and religious stories, and later to address political and social issues. Equipped with the riches of tradition, Nalamdana actors have also mastered the techniques of beloved Tamil cinema in the creation of their unique style and for maximum impact. Today, the Organization staffs a core of five full-time actors (wearing artistic as well as administrative hats) and 9 part-time performers and musicians. Dedicated to entertain as well as educate, they have been performing for the fishermen, farmers, city/village dwellers, delivering key messages on disease prevention and health promotion since 1993. The messages they craft for dissemination are based on their outreach activities and on-going research on HIV/AIDS and Maternal and Child Health.
I spent two weeks with them, and had the opportunity to visit Chennai and Rural Tamil Nadu in a way that no organized tourist itinerary could have rivaled. My journey began when I joined the five other members of the Eartwatch expedition team at the Chennai International Airport. We were escorted to a spacious flat in the south of Chennai near their office, we met the staff and received the official welcome -- colorful marigold garlands around our necks, bindis for our foreheads and yellow sandlewood powder as our fragrance.
Next day, we were taken for a tour of the town, including shopping for Indian clothes. The store where we shopped follows green in policy and practice. On the upper floor of the store, we saw an exhibition of ethnic prints, displaying collections of hand-block printing on fabric from the styles of Khadi with embroidery, Ajrakh (Gujarat and Rajasthan), Bagh (Madhya Pradesh) and Kalamkari (Andhra Pradesh Kalamkarihall).
Although we were to prepare for a 6-day trip to the South along the Coromandel coast, we kept a busy schedule in Chennai. During the two days prior to our trip, we started the day with a morning walk, followed by a Tamil language class - one of the four langauges widely spoken in the Tamil Nadu State. After breakfast (delivered to the apartment), we were teamed with a Nalamdana staff each: we measured heights and weights of children at a day care centre; interviewed the adolescents at a local Adolescent Girls Group organized by Nalamdana; visited the school and rehabilitation centre of the Spastic Society of India, or joined the students in the Nutrition Department at the Women Christian College to conduct nutritional surveys.
On the evening of our second day in Chennai, we joined Nalamdana's theatre staff for a performance of one of their plays in a fishing village 20 km south of the City. The play was entitled Kalyana Malai (The Wedding Garland) and the script had crafted brief messages related to girls' education, age of marriage, nutrition before and during pregnancy, breastfeeding, etc. In addition to professional actors who performed key roles, local talents were recruited and coached to allow for the play's adaptation to the recipient community's needs and wants.
While the makeshift stage was prepared for the evening's performance, children were invited to the stage to sing and we, each teamed with Nalamdana's staff, administered the pre-play questionnaires to the sampled household members. Used as a tool to collect information on local practices as well as demographic characteristics, the questionnaire included a total of 14 questions specifically related to the messages transmitted during the play. Following the performance, while community elders as well as the audience were invited to the microphone, we returned to the same sampled households to administer the post-play questionnaires.
We left Chennai in the morning of our 3rd day to travel south along the coastal route. We spent 6-days visiting villages of fishermen, farmers and agricultural workers, including many that were devastated by the Tsunami of 2004. Every morning, while the theatre staff rehearsed, we first prepared the questionnaires and other data collection instruments for the evening's performance, then toured the nearby tourist sites, such as the seaside town of Pondicherry and the impressive temple for the deity Shiva at Chidambaram - also a centre of religious learning. In addition, we each conducted a brief seminar for the Nalamdana staff in an area of our expertise. For example, the physician and the nurse in our team answered many health-related questions posed by the staff. We all took part in a few games and activities used for initiating/warming up group meetings that other team members had prepared.
On the 4th night, during the pre-play entertainment, we joined the performers on the stage - we each held a percussion instrument and kept beat with the tabla player, and sang a popular rhythmic Tamil song - both coached to us by two of the musicians and rehearsed along with admirable patience. We also awarded children who had sung on stage during the pre-play entertainment with gifts.
Warm welcome and reception were extended to us by the community in every village. On the evening of last performance, we were invited to dine in the estate of one of the village elders where we feasted on delicious dishes of Tamil Nadu served to us by the host's family members.
On our return to Chennai, we stopped to admire the impressive rock-cut temples and sculptures along the coast at Mamallapuran left by the kings of the Pallava dynasty (7th century AD). We also visited the Madras Craft Foundation's Museum of Arts and Crafts (Dakshina Chitra) in the Muttukadu district. Travelling with musicians is often a memorable musical experience and our rides were particularly so. They sang for us many sensual, melodic Tamil folk songs live. We also heard recordings of Carnatic music - the enchanting classical music of India.
Once in Chennai, we prepared a formal description of our activities, including the analysis of pre-post questionnaires for the seven performances that we had attended. We also refined our travel diaries for official submission, along with a collective evaluation of the expedition. While preparing for departure, we had a surprise visit by one of the journalists of the noted daily paper The Hindu ("New place, new experience" 2/11/2006 http://www.thehindu.in/). I took advantage of our free afternoon to visit the Government Museum and the majestic Bronze collection of deities cast in the special Indian style that reached its height during the Chola dynasty (984-1044 AD). The majority of the sculptures of Siva (the god of destruction and rebirth) in his dancing pose (Nataraja) were found in the Cholan capital city, Thanjavur. The farewell dinner that our most hospitable and generous host, the Nalamdana, had organized for us is memorable not only for the variety of delicious foods, but also for the dancing and entertainment. They made sure that we did not regret our decision not to attend a Tamil Nadu feature film!
One member of the Expedition team and I stayed a week longer, during which time we attended the marriage banquet of the Nalamdana driver. We received the privilege to join the family at the Village's Muruga Temple and witnessed the bride and groom taking the Hindu ceremonial vow.
Dr. Sara Monajem