Straight from the puppet's mouth

Why should it matter if messages are effectively conveyed through tales, songs and plays rather than from the mouths of scientists bogged down in charts and diagrams?

By Evan Goldsmith
Published: Sunday 15 January 1995

-- IT IS 10.30 in the night and every villager from Kaphlana is all rapt attention on, say forest protection or alcoholism, legal rights or the drudgery of women. They have heard all this before, so why are they listening so eagerly and even shouting occasional comments? Is it some brilliant Phd or some high-ranking state official holding forth? Well, they are enthralled to master orators in the shape of hand-made paper mache puppets.

After spending almost a year working in the Uttar Pradesh hills on a micro-watershade management project, I am still amazed at how the local people respond to the "traditional medium of communications". Communications, in the developmental concept, uses dramas, songs and puppet shows to develop awareness and raise pertinent issues amongst the local people.

Although these performances create an astounding effect, it is strange that communications seem to be ignored in development planning and education. In all of my studies in the US and in subsequent readings elsewhere, I cannot recall one instance of "communications" being recommended as an important method to create awareness. Yet, from very real experiences, I feel that it is the puppet shows and the street plays that are most effective in getting a message across.
The virtues of "hokey dokey" It is possible that a puppet show is viewed as "hokey dokey", or not serious, by those in charge of outlining or funding development strategies. The ideology that conventional lectures are the "proper" way to educate people smacks of elitism and cultural insensitivity. This close-minded view needs desperate broadening to include and encourage methods that are by far more effective. What should it matter if the information being presented to a village comes from the mouth of a scientist loaded down with charts and tables or from the mouth of a puppet -- as long as the message is received and understood by those it was intended for?

In the hills, the traditional form of information transfer is via story telling, songs and dance. The villagers relate to it, and frankly, they enjoy it much more than sitting and listening to yet another outsider drone at them. The beauty of traditional means of communications is its broad scope -- it is able to address very serious topics in a form that is grabs the people's attention and appeals to all age groups in a village.

In September 1994, the Shri Bhuvneshwari Mahila Ashram's communications' team toured the 11 villages that lie in the watershed where the project I an engaged in is located. Many issues surfaced during the series of 3 hour performances. In one instance, the villagers of Koti accused one man of selling alcohol to local youths in front of the over 200 persons, prompting the alcohol problem to be addressed on the spot.

In Bensoli Talli, a man adamantly protested having the leader of the village's woman group participate in the ceremony that inaugurates every performance, since he felt the group was useless. The women stood up in band to defend themselves in front of the entire village.
Not just actors These examples, and in many others, the local people got to talking (even shouting!) about the real issues in their lives. It was somehow appropriate because the communications team's acts became just a part of larger village show -- one in which the participants were not just the actors on the stage.

It is now after midnight in Kaphlana. A play has just concluded and Ramlal, the head of the communications' team, is asking the people what the forests mean to them. Responses come from an elderly woman, a small boy, a school-girl, and from a mother of five -- all succinctly telling what the forest provides and how they need to take steps towards better management. The interaction was direct and to the point, and soon the audience is singing a traditional Garhwali song about the villagers' love of the forest.

As the drumbeats fade into the night, I can hear the villagers humming the song as they head back to their homes, and I somehow feel that the message will remain fresh in their minds as they head towards their fields tomorrow sunrise.

---Evan Goldsmith, a graduate of Bucknell University in the US, is a volunteer with the Shri Bhuvneshwari Mahila Ashram, a non-governmental organization.

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