The Optimist Citizen

How theatre was used as a tool to delve deeper into the mental health issues of the migrants

Pune-based Swatantra Theatre helped research resilience among migrant communities using the methodology of theatre to better understand how these communities can deal with mental health issues.

Swatantrata Theatre

India went into lockdown in an attempt to flatten the COVID-19 curve. But another epidemic was silently ravaging the country. Cases of mental illness rose by more than 20% as Indian struggled with unemployment, economic uncertainty, rising debt, alcohol abuse and domestic. And while Indian across the class divide faced these problems, as always it was our most vulnerable communities like the migrant population that were affected the most. Migrants who move from rural areas to cities face a host of challenges. These include poor living conditions and inadequate access to health services. And while there are several studies and interventions to help these communities, these efforts are mostly focused on biological and environmental risk factors. So, while there are plenty of studies about psychological distress, anxiety and depression among migrants in India, there is hardly any that talk about their resilience.


This is where the Mental Health Resilience India Project steps in. It is an interdisciplinary and collaborative global public health partnership. The initiative was purposed to explore the resilience of migrant community members in Pune, Maharashtra. Theatre was the opted tool to ensure ample engagement and interaction with the community. Several organisations came together to make this happen. The list includes Institute of Health Management (Pachod), De Montfort Univerity (UK), Tata Institute of Social Sciences, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Excavate Theatre (UK), and Swatantra Theatre (Pune), We had the opportunity of having a candid conversation with Dhanashree Heblikar, the Creative Director at Swatantra Theatre. The group was involved with the slum communities in Hadapsar, Pune for more than two years beginning from April 2017 till May 2019. They had their first meeting with the research team in 2016 during the researchers’ search for an established theatre group in Pune.

They began their work by first building trust with the communities. Their first goal was to make the members of the community believe in the purpose of the project. To accomplish this, they planned a range of activities that would introduce the team to the community, inform the community about the project, receive the community’s consent and boost community engagement. Some of the activities were street plays, poetry sessions, acting workshops for children, banner sewing class for women, playback theatre, painting exhibition, script narrating and musical evenings.

This long list of activities is quite indicative of the massive amounts of work they put in to engage with the community. They were accompanied by research assistants on every visit whose job was to gather stories from the community members. They would work with the research team to devise activities that would generate the stories required for the research. Through this, they were able to collect narrative data on the lived experiences of 30 migrants. Researchers also would record the facial expressions of the community members during said activity. The aspect of theatre helped them collect information that might have otherwise remained unsaid. All of the work was leading to a final play based on the stories gathered from the community. The script prepared used all the narratives collected. The final performance took place over two days in the evening. The Swatantra team was helped by the members of the community in clearing the area, providing the power and setting up the stage. Both community members and actors from the theatre group participated in the play. All the props used in the act were made by the community members. 

Swatantrata Theatre

The findings highlighted resilience as the ability to grow and develop under extreme conditions. It showcased the importance of sometimes ordinary things in building up resilience like family members and inner strength. It also emphasises the importance of optimism in building resilience. The narratives from the community showed the urge to live in their ongoing confrontation with mental distress. The research demonstrated that community theatre increases resilience among migrant communities. It brings people together and creates lasting memories. The project aims to conduct more formal comparative studies in the future. If the results are successful, the tools can have universal applicability. Policymakers and public officials can make use of these new tools to ensure the wellbeing of the people. The data inferences can be key pointers to devise programs that cater to them directly.

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