Friday, February 17, 2012

Art and Awareness Come to Puri Beach

Elizabeth Jones is the Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad. She has been living in Hyderabad for one year and loves it when she is sent to the beach for work.

Working all weekend isn’t so bad if you get to hang out on the beach!  The U.S. Consulate General Hyderabad conducted its first cultural program in Odisha by organizing an exhibit by a 3D sidewalk artist on Puri Beach.  American artist Tracy Lee Stum visited India on a five-city tour hosted by the U.S. Embassy and consulates.  As a member of the Public Affairs team at Consulate, I got to help her plan her visit to Odisha.  Tracy chose to collaborate with famous Odisha sand sculptor Sudarsan Puttnaik. The two agreed on marine conversation as a theme, given they both hail from coastal cities – Sudarsan from Puri and Tracy from California — and are passionate about environmental conservation. 
Sudarsan and Tracy had never met before this trip, but they found that they have much in common.  Both of them believe in creating art in public for the public.  While most art is created in private studios and displayed in galleries or museums, sidewalk paintings and sand sculptures are created in the public for the public.  Tracy sees herself and Sudarsan as performers as well as artists, since passersby often stop to watch the artists work.  Tracy describes the process as “creating something out of nothing” and sees it as a work of art in itself.
And it was a performance.  Over the course of a day and a half, thousands of people stopped to observe the progress she and Sudarsan made.  She would often stop to chat with them and explain the piece. 
Tracy calls her sidewalk painting and Sudarsan’s sand sculptures “ephemeral art forms” because they are created to last a short period of time before they deteriorate and disappear.  As artists, both Tracy and Sudarsan have to view their final products with detachment and agree to let them go. 
When the final piece was completed, crowds gathered on the viewing platform to peer through a special lens that made the painting look 3D.  Tracy’s painted dolphins looked like they were jumping out of Sudarsan’s sand sculpture into a pool right in the middle of the ground. 
Tracy is an artist, a performer, and also a teacher.  She is committed to sharing her skills with others, and on her trip to India, she conducted workshops for young artists in every city she visited.  In Bhubaneswar, she spent a day at Bakul Children’s Library, and with the help of 50 young students and local artists, she transformed the street into an art gallery.  She demonstrated 3D techniques and worked individually with the artists. At the end of the day, the street was filled with brightly-colored 3D paintings.  Teaching workshops is one of Tracy’s favorite activities because she loves meeting young artists who are eager to explore new techniques.  I understood what she meant – it was so inspiring to be surrounded by energetic, creative people as they worked together to use art to express themselves. 
Tracy’s effect on Odisha lives on.  This week we heard about two young women in Odisha who were so inspired by Tracy’s ideas about public art that they have taken it upon themselves to pain public walls in Bhubaneswar.  Read about their efforts to make the city more beautiful here.
Tracy’s art may be ephemeral, but her impact is not.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Learning about Leprosy

On Sunday, January 29, LEPRA India organized a walk for World Leprosy Day to fight stigma and discrimination.  I was honored to be invited as chief guest and pleased to see how many Hyderabadis turned out for the walk, including students, activists and persons affected by leprosy. 
Before the march, Dr. Ranganadha Rao, LEPRA’s chief executive briefed me about leprosy in India, and I was disturbed by what I learned.  Leprosy is a treatable, curable disease, and there’s no need for newly-infected individuals to experience the kind of disabilities that we all associate with leprosy as long as they are diagnosed early and begin multi-drug therapy.  Unfortunately, though, stigma and misinformation discourage patients from seeking medical help early, resulting in late diagnoses and unnecessary suffering. 
I was struck by some sad parallels between leprosy and HIV/AIDS.  Both diseases were at one time considered incurable and consequently extremely feared.  Lack of accurate information about disease transmission in both cases led many members of the public to shun those affected by AIDS and leprosy.  In the late 20th century, science prevailed over superstition at least enough to fight off proposals to quarantine AIDS patients, but for many years leprosy sufferers were forcibly segregated from society.  Even today, stigma is so great that many leprosy survivors who bear the disfiguring traces of the disease choose to live in leprosy colonies because of discrimination and ostracism in the wider world.  To some extent it’s a vicious cycle: misinformation, stigma, and discrimination cause irrational fear that contributes to delay in diagnosis.  Delayed diagnosis results in irreversible damage so that those cured of the disease remain marked by it, and suffer discrimination.
The facts are indisputable.  Untreated leprosy is a communicable disease caused by a bacteria, but it’s very hard to catch, and most people (about 95%) have natural immunity.  Within a very short time of beginning treatment, patients are no longer infectious, and in less than a year, they’re cured.  If you meet someone who bears the signs of leprosy, you can be 100% sure that they have been diagnosed, treated and cured—you run no risk of catching the disease from them.

Given these facts, discrimination and stigma are cruel, unfair and just plain inexcusable.  But many Indian laws continue to discriminate against leprosy patients.  For example in many states, including Andhra Pradesh, they’re prohibited from running for local office.  Leprosy patients aren’t allowed to drive according to the Motor Vehicle Act of 1939, which still applies.  LEPRA is launching a signature campaign to try to raise awareness and combat these pernicious practices.  The idea is “each one, teach one,” and this blog is one of the ways I’m trying to do my part.  I hope you will too.