Puppets talk to children about aids in India

June 2008 -

In a country where over three million people are infected with hiv Indian puppeteer Meena Naik uses her art to defy a societal taboo - talking to children about sex and aids.


Scene from Yeh Dil Maange More

Naik, who works out of Mumbai, uses traditional (rod, string and shadow) and contemporary puppets to communicate vital information about the disease. Her work fills an important void created by parents who are often too conservative or embarrassed to broach the topic at home.The artist first began using puppetry for social communication in 1993 while conducting workshops with sex workers in Mumbai, who were at the time poorly informed about sexually transmitted diseases. Her most recent coup in January 2008 was getting 160 schools in Mumbai to telecast her educational film on child sexual abuse in which she uses shadow puppetry to depict sensitive scenes of family members molesting young children.

In her theatre production Yeh Dil Maange More (The Heart Wants More) which has already completed 200 shows, she talks to teens about the importance of using condoms. Naik mixes puppetry and live action to narrate the story of a young couple who fall in love and have unprotected sex. Their child is born hiv positive. "It always leads to an interactive discussion on aids among the audience", she adds.

India has a rich history of socially relevant puppetry and in rural parts it has long been the medium of choice to talk about illiteracy, health and family planning to all age groups. Since television however it has faded in popularity, especially in the cities. As one of the few remaining guardians of the art form in urban India, Naik recognises its active potential. "I have found that children are more open with puppets. Because the puppet is not human, it cannot reprimand or embarrass them. This also encourages them to ask questions", says Naik. Though traditional puppetry lies at the heart of her endeavour, she also crafts her characters out of waste paper and soda bottles.

Her work has been widely appreciated by ngo's and colleagues in the art world. As Ramdas Padhye, India's leading puppeteer says, "she is very effective as there are few people who would not listen to a puppet."