Comics and Health

 

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With two participatory comics workshops in our  list of artboxes, the Dharavi Biennale was selected to participate in a niche conference conducted by Graphic Medicine and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Department of Art as Applied to Medicine.  The conference, “Comics & Medicine: From Private Lives to Public Health”, involved a mix of artists, healthcare professionals, academics and comics enthusiasts. Worlds you might have thought would never meet – comics and healthcare – interacted, presented works, and exchanged ideas and cultures.

To recap on our work, Dharavi residents made comics on health issues (such as injuries and nutrition) under the guidance of Chaitanya Modak, a comics artist based out of Mumbai. For many of them, comics were  a new medium that few had heard of and even fewer had read. In the course of the workshops they were mentored to create poster-comics with a standard panel format telling stories about health. The posters were then put up in Dharavi and the participants interacted with locals and shared their stories with them. For Dharavi viewers, who had little comics literacy, this was a new format of storytelling and could engage even those who lacked education. This was for Dharavi, by Dharavi. 

Since many of the comics were personal experiences transformed into monochrome comics for public engagement, our work fit perfectly with the theme of the conference. We called our presentation “Comics Epidemic” with good reason. Dharavi often makes people think of disease and dirt, but we believe that comics, and the Biennale, might help shake up the stereotype.

Benita Fernando, the blogger, presented our work. It was an honour to be at the Comics and Medicine conference along with figures like Arthur Frank, James Strum, Ellen Forney and Carol Tilley. It was also an eye-opener to see the number of comics and graphic novels that address health issues like depression, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The thing about a comic is that it can make even the most intimidating topics into a non-threatening subject for discussion. The serious and the sober become more approachable.

You can read more about our comics workshops here and here.

The Comics Journal covered happenings at the conference here.

Thanks to all our Dharavi participants, mentor Chaitanya Modak and Lydia Gregg, who chaired the conference’s organization committee. 

Round Two of Comics Mania

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We did it again.

About 20 boys and girls and men were mentored by Chaitanya Modak (a comics creator and illustrator) and drew comics on injuries. Injuries both inside and outside. Injuries of the body and injuries of the mind. In just four days, many of the participants, who were just recent initiates into the understanding of comics (leave alone the making of comics), drew four paneled and six paneled comics on injuries.

Since there were varied interpretations of what injuries could mean, the participants unleashed these on paper. Saraswati’s comic (Koi To Meri Suno: Someone please listen to me) was about depression, while Manoj’s comic was about dog bites. Some interpretations were the result of Dr. Anil More’s observations. Anil is a doctor attached to the Sion Hospital and has seen several cases come in from Dharavi. He says that most of these cases are due to accidents, street fights and dog bites. One of the most intriguing comics was by Raghavendra in which a boy thinks he is a superhero and therefore meets with an accident.

Lots of excitement and the frenzy of pen on paper.

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We were ready with the comics by the end of December and this week, we went to the streets armed with jumbo photocopies of the comics. Some of us went to the nearby Transit Camp while some others went to Kala Killa, a little farther away. The idea was to spread comics (thereby a little education and a little entertainment) all across Dharavi. There was a slight tussle among the participants since some had to wield the slimy glue brushes 🙂

Transit Camp, where Kishan, Nilesh, Raghavendra and the very lazy Avinash went, is a busy hub where people crisscross the streets or gather in the corners. Groups of men, shopkeepers and schoolchildren gathered fervently around the comics we put up and asked one resounding question: What is this about? Read, we said. “Many people were initially a little resistant to the idea of comics. But they eventually got around to reading them,” observed Nilesh.

People who read the comics could easily relate to the situations portrayed. Among those who read Raghavendra’s story about the delusional boy who thought he was a superhero, one man said, “I knew someone who thought was like Shaktimaan and tried to jump from a building.” People read Ravi’s comic on alcoholism and wanted to know where they could get info on deaddiction.

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Manoj, who went to neighboring Shastri Nagar to put up some comics, said, “Many people loved looking at the comics. But they had never seen something like this and did not know where to start reading. They asked me: Tell us where to start.” The form is a little unusual for a majority of the population. While they are well exposed to cinema, novels and plays, this form of storytelling requires a bit more attention.

The participants found a lot of support from the communities they went to. Some shopkeepers were a little suspicious of our work but most others were forthcoming with praise and suggestions. Some men suggested that the public toilets would be the best place to put up the comics. Before we could object to their remark, a man said, “Because this is where men will stand for some time and read.” Considering we spread our monochrome comics over colourful propaganda posters, prayer meeting announcements and loud adverts, it was a pretty good response from the public.

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Comics Street Invasion

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Rainy day. But it stopped raining when we set out and started pouring when we finished. In between we had some sunny comic relief. Armed with rolls of comics posters that we had made and a pail of glue, we invaded the streets of Kumbharwada, Sri Shakti Nagar and Naik Nagar. In little battalions, we pasted the comics we had made on the walls of houses, compound walls and shutters of shops. Chaitanya Modak, the mentor artist, said that the agenda was to interact with locals and get them talking about our comics – the themes we had portrayed, the incidents depicted and the techniques.

In Naik Nagar, just on the outskirts of Dharavi, the lanes are narrow and maze-like. Sitaram, our logistics man, and many of our participants from the comics workshop are residents of this area and were quite eager to put up their comics to impress their friends and family. On a wall in the lane where he resides, Pinku put up his comic on an accident that occurs during the monsoon game of dahi handi. Priyanka and her sisters pasted their comics in their neighbourhood amidst curious children and bemused women.

Sonali had drawn a comic about the aches and joys of the monsoon season. Her comic showed children making merry in the rains and soon falling ill with monsoon related diseases. Another water theme was found in Nisha’s story about scarcity of drinking water in a village. A small kiosk owner helped us put it up on the detachable shutter of his shop.

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Over at Kumbharwada, pasted on the walls was Suryamala’s story of how a woman is torn between the love for her family and her in-laws. Luckily, the story narrates, her in-laws are very understanding about her need to spend time with her own family. A man who read the story told her that he connected with her story and went to say that he had a ‘second marriage’ with another woman just because his mother hated the first 🙂

We realised it’s not easy just talking to strangers on the road. We called men, women and children to consider the comics and we discussed stories with them. Some teenage boys teased us but we would like to believe we won them over as well.

At the end of the day the forces got together and shared their experiences. Komal and Jyoti had been motivated to make some more comics on their own. Komal had drawn an elegant comic with wolves and lions to discuss the theme of family planning.

Operation comics street invasion. You could say it brought out the child in us. Exhilarated. Enthused.

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Dharavi Pizza

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Old Akhtarunissa shared her story about pizza. She eats a slice every time the young ones in the family buy some pizza. She is not too fond of it; she finds it chewy, the cheese overbearing and while many of us relish the stringy happiness that is baked mozzarella, she finds it a lot like chewing gum. Still, she doesn’t mind a slice or two for this way the children are happy.

The pizza (born in Italy, raised in America) is as common as the vada pav and we have adopted it desi style. Who does not have a pizza memory?

At our latest comics workshop, Surekha and Priyanka drew their memories of pizza, conversations and friends. Surekha, a working mother and a college student, remembers a treat hosted by a friend at a pizzeria. They were four friends and the treat-giver easily spent a thousand bucks that day.

Akhtarunissa, Priyanka and Surekha hail from Dharavi.

People in Dharavi eat pizza. How obvious, you would think.

You see, because we all love pizza, we went to a popular pizza outlet in Sion to place an order for thirteen (vegetarian and non-vegetarian) pizzas for a little party with our comics workshop participants. We went drooling in visions of pizza heaven – melting cheese, tangy sauce, paneer tikkas and spicy chicken. We were refused an order and told, “We do not deliver in Dharavi. Nobody delivers over there.” So we tried the sympathy card (we are from an NGO in Chota Sion Hospital), the practicality card (it is on the main road), the policy card (we are well within your radius of delivery areas) and the blackmail card (we will tell our friends in the media). Still a negative answer. If we wanted those pizzas, we would have to personally pick them up.

So, we called up the Mahim branch of the same pizza guys. They don’t deliver in Dharavi either. They passed the buck back to the Sion outlet. We were in Dharavi, between the devil of a Mahim and the deep sea of Sion. Dharavi was an area of darkness.

In the end, we called up customer care which, after some tedious minutes of putting us on hold, promised to deliver pizzas. No we didn’t have to go pick it up ourselves.

Surely this was a joke. We checked with Kaushik, another of our participants. That’s right, he said. No one delivers pizzas in Dharavi. They say it’s difficult to navigate the roads. So any time he and his friends wish to have pizzas, they go to an outlet.

So yeah. In Dharavi, we eat, love and dream pizzas. How about some delivery services here? Or better still, how about a pizzeria here?

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