Taking it into the heart: reducing disaster risks through song and dance

By Elizabeth Stevens
It's 80% entertainment and 20% message. Here we are trying to help people take everything into the heart. - Prakash Nayak

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The beach at the village of Ramnad, India, is a study in stillness and motion. The waves breaking on the shore keep up a restless rhythm, and the wind at its height drowns out every other sound. But the fishing boats that lie at anchor, bows pointed to shore, barely seem to move, and a dozen raptors—sharp eyes on the boats—hover motionless over the beach.

It is the off-season for fishing communities of Tamil Nadu—a time for families to leave off their grueling daily routine to let the fish breed and reproduce. On a late afternoon in May 2008, shouts and drumbeats announce that players have come to entertain the shore-bound villagers.

Making a lot of noise

"Why are you guys going around making all this noise?" one shouts to another.

"Today is a special day for creating awareness," cries the other.

The six men, dressed in white shirts and bright blue sashes, form a circle in the middle of the narrow street and dance to their own syncopated rhythm. Children mill around excitedly, and women come to their doorways to watch.

The call and response continues, answering the questions their audience might be too shy to ask at first.

"What if you ask for money at the end?"

"Everything is free for you!"

They move through the streets, singing, shouting, and dancing, until a crowd gathers around them on a patch of sand next to the village temple.

Here they put on a show. There is theru koothu, bommalattam, and thappaattam—traditional storytelling, puppetry, and drumming. And the players perform a skit where, to the delight of the children, grownups trip and fall and make foolish mistakes over and over. It's mostly entertainment, but the performers have woven some serious themes into the act: boiling drinking water and using latrines improve health, and if people work together, they can reduce disaster risks in their communities.

Crows swoop overhead between the coconut trees that shade the tiny square and add their cries to the shouting and laughter.

Street performances aren't so very rare in this part of India. Tamil Nadu has never discarded its folk traditions. But this troupe is sponsored by the Dhan Foundation, an Oxfam partner, and it shows. The Dhan philosophy spurns charity-based, top-down approaches to development in favor of building on communities' own capacity to chart their path forward. So the players in Ramnad didn't just descend on the village with a message they imagined would be helpful. They spent a day here getting to know people and learning about the risks that most concern them before devising their script. And to bring the show even closer to home, they invited community members to join them in shaping and painting the hand puppets that now scoot around the wings of the stage, commenting on everything in sight.

The medium and the message

Children squeal as one of the players dances into the audience and plops himself down next to a village elder to ask a question about the village's sanitation-related health struggles. "Is this an individual problem or a community problem?" he asks, with a puzzled look. The elder laughs to find himself suddenly in the spotlight.

If light-hearted folk art seems an unlikely medium for bringing about real change in people's lives, think again. These performers played a key role in a campaign targeting drug and alcohol use in which 163 out of 200 men successfully beat their addictions. As well as a groundwater awareness campaign that resulted in important improvements to a government policy in Tamil Nadu. In a part of the country where oral traditions are rich but literacy rates are low, performances like this can be an important source of information and inspiration.

"It's 80 percent entertainment and 20 percent message," says Prakash Nayak, the leader of the troupe. "Here we are trying to help people take everything into the heart."

Of course, it helps if you employ trusted messengers.

"The temple priest is a traditional healer," says Selvam, the group's script writer. "If we want to convey a health message, we will design a puppet as a temple priest—and will make the puppet resemble the actual village priest."

Another secret to their success: "The puppet can say things any random person cannot," says performer Ranga Nathan. Even to the players, it turns out.

"All this awareness talk isn't funny," one puppet complains, when a performer says something earnest about the importance of boiling drinking water. The players quickly oblige him by switching to a lively dance.

The folklorists—who've been working with the Dhan Foundation for the last ten years—are now doing programs for the Advanced Center for Enabling Disaster Risk Reduction (ACEDRR), a new center devoted to research and activities aimed at reducing people's vulnerability to disaster.

"Oxfam's tsunami-related work is drawing to a close," says Oxfam tsunami research director Russell Miles. "But reducing the risk of future disasters is still a big concern. Our contribution to the ACEDRR is an effort to ensure that communities like this one, which poverty has made vulnerable to disasters, continue to get the support they need long after our own programs have ended."

The performance is all-out from beginning to end, and the players' faces stream with sweat as they perform the final dance. Villagers gather around them when they're done.

"I liked it very much," said a 65-year-old man named Velusamy. Particularly the message about clean water. "It's a great help to everyone."