Reshma Valliappan talks about her project The Red Door, battle with schizophrenia and her wish to make the world a better place to live in
It takes a lot more than strength to acknowledge mental illness, to live with it and to help others conquer their demons. Some may call you mad, a few might think you are sick but a really small set of people might think of you as a normal person and try to help you walk through your troubles. Reshma Valliappan was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 22 but instead of letting it deter her spirit, she made it her strongest weapon. She is an artist-activist for a number of issues related to mental health, disability, sexuality and human rights. She is the protagonist of the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) documentary, A Drop of Sunshine which is based on her true story of recovery and living with schizophrenia without medications.
Valliappan now works with the concept of ‘The Red Door’, to create more awareness about the issues of mental health in India. The Red Door is a creative initiative started in 2011 which questions the ideology of normalcy and believes in treating every human being as normal and accepting their unique quirks. She is bringing the third edition of The Red Door — called The Mad Hatters’ Party at Gyaan Adab today. It’s going to be an afternoon filled with engaging conversations, story-telling, poetry, stand-ups etc.
Talking about the concept, she says, “We don’t believe in the concept of mental illness. It is a label given to people by doctors and society to give a name to the illness. Instead, here are their experiences that they have lived and worked with, and we need to accept them the way they are.”
The activist says that the inception of The Red Door happened when she decided to leave her medications and switched to painting as a therapy. “I thought if painting did this to me, it might help other people as well. We don’t have an office, it is just a way of bringing people together and share what is inside their mind. Everything in our life is constructed and there is a belief that art is only for gallery while performance is only for the theatre. To break these barriers, like a regular tea party, there will be people who will come and read out poetry, paint and joke around. We are trying to create a safe space for people with mental illness and offer them a creative outlet. Of course, people may have performance anxiety and may get worried about being judged but this is a safe zone amongst a bunch of strangers,” Valliappan says.
She also explains that it has a really personal context for her. She says, “Just because people know that I have this illness, they think that I am dangerous or violent and any reaction of mine is considered as a lapse. We think that abroad, people are more open about these things but even the Westerners have not done much work. They just have a more open culture where people can talk about it. Everyone is aware of alternative creative therapies but they are way too expensive to pursue. So why not create a space of people amongst our own? Our recovery model came from America but even they are now advocating Yoga.”
So at The Mad Hatters’ Party, people can be who they want to be — a vampire, Batman or any other creature. She says when everyone sits in a group, they are scared that people might think they are mad but one person comes out and says, ‘I am Batman’, the others will automatically follow and forget about the inhibitions, thus creating a happy, healthy environment. “We had a father who came to drop his son to one of the events. When he saw what we were doing, he stopped by and starting sharing about his childhood and how he used to make everyone laugh but is now looking for someone to make him laugh. The entire group joined in and we had an amazing time. You don’t necessarily have to have a mental illness, you can be a regular person and still join us for the tea party,” she says.
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Bring in your own poems, stories, monologues, jokes and join The Mad Hatters’ Party at Gyaan Adab on June 7 at 4.30 pm.
Follow the writer on Twitter @sh_anukriti