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Make Art/Stop AIDS Conference in India Attracts Wide Media Attention
Calcutta Telegraph, July 7, 2004

Make Art/Stop AIDS Conference in India Attracts Wide Media Attention

David Gere, Global Impact Research grant recipient, draws leading Indian artists to workshop on using art to educate about the AIDS epidemic.

Some 50 participants from India, Nepal, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Surinam, and the United States, including many leading Indian film and folk media artists, attended a four-day workshop to "Make Art/Stop AIDS" in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) the first week of July. The meeting was widely reported in the Indian press, and its organizer, UCLA Arts professor David Gere, was frequently interviewed, along with his brother Richard Gere. The conference was part of a UCLA International Institute Global Impact Research-funded project on art and AIDS headed by David Gere. The Kolkata conference also received funding from the Gere Foundation. On July 6, the day following the Kolkata meeting, a large public forum was held under the same title at the other end of the subcontinent, in New Delhi, in which both Gere brothers participated.

David Gere, Assistant Professor of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, was recipient of a $50,000 two-year grant from the International Institute to study the uses of the arts in educating people about AIDS and to run pilot projects on AIDS awareness through art in South Africa, Surinam, and India. He has spent the last six months in India on a Fulbright scholarship contacting Indian artists and preparing for the Kolkata workshop.

The July 29 Times of India quoted Gere as saying, "My project highlights efforts by various artists who have spoken about AIDS through their media. They range from film actor OmPuri to painters in a village near Kolkata who paint scrolls with anti-AIDS messages.’’ Older brother Richard Gere, who has long been active in India around the cause of Tibetan independence, is running his own anti-AIDS effort in India, the Heroes Project. The Times of India quipped, "between the two brothers, they have wrapped up both classes and the masses." This article was widely syndicated in many other Indian newspapers and online publications.

The July 3 Kolkata Telegraph interviewed David Gere. He told the reporter, "I found the highest concentration of artistes dealing with HIV in Calcutta." He said he had been interviewing "thoughtful people using art in a socially responsive manner" across the country.

In India currently there are some 3.8 to 5 million HIV positive people. This is expected to leap to between 20 and 25 million by 2010, potentially the most in any one country in the world. The Telegraph article continued, "The conference will highlight innovations in India in AIDS awareness and palliative care by artists, activists, and academics, including street theater troupes, a popular detective drama on national television, and performances by the Bharata Natyam dancer Mallika Sarabhai."

How Art Is Being Used in the Battle Against AIDS

Those attending the workshop included filmmaker-actor Revathy Menon, Delhi-based puppeteers Anuroopa Roy and Varun Narain, and UK-based photographer Sunil Gupta. "The idea was to bring together artistes engaged in the battle against AIDS so that they could interact and network," David Gere told the Statesman (Calcutta, July 18). The Statesman offered some examples of how participants in the Kolkata workshop are using their art to do AIDS education:

"Experts have pointed out that 90 per cent of the people in India do not even know that they have the virus until they are at an advanced stage. Traditional art is, therefore, a good way to reach out to people at the grassroots. Folk artistes had a definite presence in the Kolkata workshop. In this multicultural country, folk art and performances have always been a source of entertainment and education. Thus, one finds Monimala and Rani Chitrakar, both from the traditional patua or scroll-painter community of Medinipur, adapting the message of prevention of HIV into their pat chitras (scroll paintings). Instead of the usual mythical figures they use figures of doctors and nurses and sing along, explaining everything, in the same way as they sing the legend of gods and goddesses. 'At first, we faced criticisms from villagers. They didn’t approve of our new kind of painting. But now they have accepted us and listen to our songs,' Monimala said.

"It is quite revealing how creative tools are being used to talk about AIDS. A. Selvaraja of Tamil Nadu is progeny of a family practicing a centuries-old art of shadow puppetry. Tholpavai Koothu reminds one of Indonesia's shadow puppetry telling the story of the Ramayana. Selvaraja's is literally a one-man show as he acts out the dialogues, plays the drum and controls the puppet simultaneously. But now, commissioned to adapt his art to spread awareness about AIDS in villages of Tamil Nadu (which has one of the highest incidences of HIV infection in India) he has changed the script with great sense of humour to show a lascivious king and a dancer, or a man going for an extra-marital affair to talk about the sagacity of condom-use."

The AIDS Mother Goddess

One artist has gone so far as to invent a new goddess, the AIDS Mother, to get the message out. The Statesman reports:

"One of the most innovative ways of marrying science and religious beliefs is displayed by Girish HN. of Karnataka. Anxious to educate the villagers, this science teacher from Mysore invented the AIDS-Amma deity! 'Religion and rituals play a major role in this country, whether you like it or not. In our village, we have the temple of Mariyamma, goddess of chicken pox. So I had this deity made, a stone slab with a man and a woman facing each other, next to Mariyamma temple, calling her AIDS-Amma (mother). And now people do puja here too.' But what about awareness? The walls near the AIDS Amma deity display information about HIV/AIDS, how to prevent it, etc. 'My students work as volunteers to explain these to the people,' Girish said."

Express India of New Delhi on July 2 recounted some of the difficulties artists at the Kalkata workshop have encountered. Filmmaker Revathy Menon in making her film Phir Milenge found that "The stigma around AIDS is so strong that a number of Bollywood actors reportedly refused to take on the role of an AIDS patient in her film. The part is finally being played by Salman Khan (a well-known Bollywood leading man)."

A July 6 report from Kolkata by Ranjita Biswas of OneWorld South Asia gave further examples of Indian artists campaigning against AIDS:

"Another innovative effort is by Tamil Nadu's A. Selvaraja. His art of shadow puppetry, 'Tholpavai Koothu', is generations old. In his one-man show, Selvaraja plays a drum and controls puppet movements at the same time. Commissioned to adapt his art to spread awareness about AIDS in villages in Tamil Nadu, which has one of the highest incidences of HIV infection in India, Selvaraja has changed his script but retained the style, which appeals to several villagers.

"And in Manipur in northeast India, popular playwright Narendra Ningomba is scripting a grassroots level battle against AIDS. Recalls Ningomba, 'While traveling through villages in Manipur with my mobile theatre, I saw the extent of AIDS in the region. Since many villagers are illiterate or barely literate, I am writing scripts with an anti-AIDS message that they can understand.'

"Neighboring Nagaland, which has an international border like Manipur, also has thousands of AIDS victims. Poet Akhotsolu Thelu-O has added lyrics on AIDS prevention to folk tunes women hum while working. 'We have a highly developed music tradition. These village women are illiterate and I thought of reaching them through music,' she says."

The OneWorld South Asia reporter summed up the Kolkata meeting:

"The workshop, probably the first of its kind, has aroused interest in integrating the artiste community's efforts. Earlier, most of them were working individually or with assistance from nongovernmental organizations in their region. Informs David Gere, 'People in this field have been working perhaps in isolation, as it happens even in the West. The workshop was an attempt to bring them together in a cohesive way. Hopefully, the movement will spread.' When asked whether there will be any monitoring of the progress of these efforts, Gere replies, 'The artistes are not individuals but a network, a chain. The demand to be in touch will come from them themselves, we hope.'" A comprehensive handbook of all the participants has been compiled to enable them to keep in touch.