A Kali Puja pandal in West Bengal’s Nadia district, based on the theme of mental illness, has sparked outrage among mental health activists.
The decorations of the pandal included hired professional artistes enacting roles of mentally ill persons. Staged behind iron bars, they were seen acting as inmates at a mental asylum, with dishevelled hair, dirty clothes, and weird expressions. Visitors were also seen taking selfies with the artistes.
The photographs of the pandal in Nadia’s Dhubulia village garnered a lot of attention on social media for its over-the-top portrayal of mental illness. It also attracted flak for being insensitive and for perpetuating misconceptions relating to people with mental illness.
Speaking to The Federal, Jeeja Ghosh, a disability rights activist based in Kolkata, said that the portrayal was derogatory. “Such depictions exhibit lack of empathy and understanding of mental illness. We are planning a mass protest and will take it up for further discussion to ensure that it doesn’t happen again,” she said.
At a time when popular culture has reduced mental illness to a caricature, there is little scope for a serious discussion of the illness and integrating those who suffer from them. In such a situation, the activists observe that such events only end up condoning the stigma.
Vaishnavi Jayakumar, co-founder The Banyan, an NGO working in the field of mental illnesses, said that it is unfortunate that the performers agreed for the job without understanding the subject.
“I think it would have been beneficial to all if the performers visited one of the mental hospitals in Kolkata where Anjali NGO is working. This is happening due to ignorance and lack of exposure. And going by the recently released report on long-stay residents of mental hospitals, the isolation faced is immense, with little or no interaction with the outer world. So the visits would help both ways,” she said.
She added, “Perhaps by next pujo, the performers and residents can collaborate and put up their own pandal within the mental hospital premises, thematic or otherwise. And throw it open to the general public. We once had a polling booth inside a mental hospital for convenience. So, there’s no reason to not have a pandal.”
The organisers of the puja, Jubakbrindo Club, however, claimed that the attempt was aimed at creating awareness, and nothing more. The theme was reportedly the brainchild of the club’s secretary Sadhan Haldar, who told Anandabazar Patrika that the pandal was an attempt at creating awareness and that he has seen his wife suffering from mental illness.
“She was confined to the house and even admitted to a mental health facility in Murshidabad. I came up with this theme for people to understand the problems and be more compassionate to those suffering from it,” he told the daily.
The state commissioner for persons with disabilities has sought an explanation from Nadia District Magistrate on how the event was permitted.