After working for more than one and a half years virtually alongside our colleagues from India and Pakistan, it’s fair to say we were really looking forward to being together in person as soon as rules around the Covid pandemic were lifted.

The PIECEs team managed to deliver our first in person joint research team meeting in Dubai, where we agreed plans to visit the sites and partners we were working with in Chennai (India) and Karachi (Pakistan) to coordinate together our Arts & Community engagement packages, given that our RCT research package is already progressing at a fast pace.

For these work packages, we are aiming to develop innovative methods (like Theatre of the Oppressed techniques) to diminish stigma, create community resilience, improve dialogue among healthcare workers, carers and people living with severe mental illness and ultimately impact on public policies and community awareness around Schizophrenia.

This blog post is a brief round-up of our time in India and its highlights, where Arts Co-Investigator Paul Heritage (Queen Mary University of London/People’s Palace Projects), PIECEs Research Programme Manager Renata Peppl, PIECEs Arts Project Manager Mariana Steffen have joined our main local partner Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF),  and our arts partner Training Sideways (EVAM) in Chennai, from 25th to 28th May, for a packed week of activities.


Street Theatre Performance: Community Engagement at its best

The team arrived on a Sunday straight into the Pondy Bazaar area, where the SCARF team was presenting a street theatre performance with a group formed by local actors, social workers and SCARF members. Performing experiences of stigma, prejudice and exclusion faced by people living with schizophrenia and their carers, the group brought together a large and spontaneous audience, which were keen on participating both physically and verbally with the performance. Leaflets with further information to generate awareness around severe mental illness and how to get help were distributed at the end of the activity.

Visit to Bhavishya Bhavan Residential Centre and Forum Theatre Performance

The second day was marked by strategic planning meetings to discuss the Arts & Community work package and timeline, and was followed by a special event at Bhavishya Bhavan Residential Centre, a SCARF managed venue which hosts inpatients with experience of severe mental illnesses, most of them women. The research team was greeted by the local members and the residents on the patio, and then everyone was led by our arts partners Training Sideways (EVAM) into a performance room for a Forum Theatre session.

Drawing from experiences and stories shared by the inpatients previously, the group presented short scenes which portrayed challenges faced by people with experience of schizophrenia. The audience, formed mostly of residents of the centre, could then intervene in moments they thought could be handled different by the characters, exploring real practice scenarios in a way that empowers them to look for solutions and change the outcome of a given experience for the better.

The strategy breaks down the barrier between performers and audience, putting them on an equal footing. It enables participants to try out courses of action which could be applicable to their everyday lives. This methodology will be the basis of most of the work developed during the Arts and Community Engagement work package of the PIECEs programme.

Awards night and NAMMA Area Launch

To mark World Schizophrenia Day, the PIECEs team was invited to join the SCARF community to present the M. Sarada Menon award and the Maitri award, destined respectively to people with experience of schizophrenia, in recognition of their efforts to cope with their challenges and move forward in life, and caregivers, including friends and family members of persons with severe mental illness, in recognition of their support to the cause.

The event was marked also by a very special launch: the brand new Namma Area, a designated hangout space for mental health service users, inaugurated at (SCARF), as part of the projects associated with the PIECEs Research.

A first-of-its-kind initiative, the Namma Area has been conceived in such a way that the service users themselves can take charge of and engage in activities which they find interesting.  “We have many patients who say they are lonely and feel upset at the lack of social life. Apart from inpatients who are unable to go out, there are patients whose families hesitate to send them out since they have their own concerns. Namma Area will be a comfortable and familiar space where they can meet other people, interact and engage,” said R. Mangala, Assistant Director, Media and Awareness, SCARF.

At the new space, people can read, relax, watch movies, exercise, listen to music, play games, and can also invite guest speakers. The facility will function on the SCARF premises at Anna Nagar from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and can be used by all mental health service users free of cost.

British High Commission Event: Arts as a tool for developing community engagement and wellbeing

On the 4th day of activities, the team was part of the talk ‘Art can build resilience, resistance and recovery for people and communities’. The spotlight was on art and its impact on the community at a panel discussion organised by SCARF India and Evam Entertainment in association with the British Deputy High Commission in Chennai.

The discussion was hosted by Oliver Ballhatchet MBE, the Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai, and moderated by Sunil Vishnu, Director of Evam Entertainment, focusing on how art can build resilience, resistance and recovery for people and communities.

Speaking on the day were R Mangala (SCARF India’s Assistant Director), Paul Heritage (People’s Palace Projects Director) and Sangeetha Isvaran, founder of the NGO Katradi. Paul highlighted how art can be used as a methodology to learn about the world. “The People’s Palace Projects brings together artists, activists, academicians and audiences as we focus on resistance and transformation as well as how it is linked to creativity and mental health,” he said.

Sangeetha spoke about how the organisation focused on empathy-based transformation through the arts. “Art is often seen as an entertainment or a spiritual experience. While it is these things, it is important, something that can also help us understand and communicate better,” she said as she delved into Katradi’s work with marginalised communities across the world.

Strategic Planning, Theatre of the Oppressed Workshop and Visit to Jana Sanskitri

The final two days of our visit were filled with practical meetings and capacity building workshops: during this time, we developed a strategic plan to move ahead with the second phase of our Arts & Community engagement activities. This centres on setting up of a theatre laboratory led by local artists, the SCARF team, people with experience of schizophrenia and carers, which will then use their own experiences to create performances that can generate further community awareness and open conversations around  severe mental illness.

Professor Paul Heritage also led a Theatre of the Oppressed session for local artists and the SCARF team, focusing on specific activities used in the methodology: Rainbow of Desire, and more specifically, Cops in the Head.

The UK and India team then flew to Kolkata to for a full day immersion at Jana Sanskitri Centre for Theatre of the Oppressed, led by PIECEs Artist Consultant Sanjoy Ganguly.

Jana Sanskriti Centre for Theatre of the Oppressed was established in 1985 was the first exponent of Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) in India. Today the Centre is seen as one of the most important point of references to the global community of TO. For over 3 decades JS has addressed issues like domestic violence, child marriage, girl child trafficking, child abuse, maternal& child health, primary education & health care, illicit liquor, etc. – all through theatre.

During the visit, the team had the opportunity to experience a performance, ask questions and strategise with the company’s artistic director.

Here is a video where India Principal Investigator R Padmatavi , Director of SCARF, talks about her excitement and expectations around the arts and community engagement package:

Next up, the UK team moved to Karachi (Pakistan) for another inspiring week, which we’ll cover on a next post.

Note: This research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) via its Research and Innovation for Global Health Transformation (RIGHT) programme. Grant number NIHR200824, using UK aid from the UK Government to support global health research. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the UK Department of Health and Social Care.