Mann Mela: When mental health victories become virtual art
A new online museum uses web comics and animated videos to tell true-life stories of youngsters overcoming psychological struggles.Updated: Oct 23, 2020, 20:18 IST
In her mind, Vidushi Karnatic from Haldwani tumbles through the air, down a dark chasm, her body is still seated in her business studies class. In bed, she sits covered by a counterpane that has become the hills and roads that separate her from her grandparents.
A new virtual museum called Mann Mela uses art, web comics and animated videos to tell true-life stories of struggles with mental health issues. Youngsters wrestle with their demons, confront childhood trauma, learn to be vulnerable.
Each story ends in a hopeful recovery. Vidushi seeks help for her anxiety, discusses the setbacks she faced in her recovery, and what it took to find some measure of peace within herself and her life.
Each story has been told and illustrated in consultation with its subject.
“With the stories, we hope to spread awareness and break the stigma. We’re even using the subjects’ real names,” says Sweta Pal of the Mann Mela exhibits.
The museum is an extension of the Goa-based NGO Sangath’s long-running project called It’s Okay To Talk. “It was started in 2017 to enable young people to speak about their mental health openly, honestly and without fear of judgement,” says Sweta Pal, 31, who’s been working with that project since the start and now handles communications for MannMela.in.
The draw of the new website is the artwork and multimedia, with three stories up and seven more in the works. But the site is also a resource on how to define addiction in oneself, what constitutes depression — the kinds of questions people of all ages tend to struggle with and hesitate to ask.
“With the stories, we hope to spread awareness and break the stigma. We’re even using the subjects’ real names,” Pal says.
Mann Mela was supposed to be a travelling museum offering a physical walkthrough experience. It premiered at the Goa Open Arts Festival in February; then the pandemic hit and, like so much else, it was forced online sooner than planned.
That may have actually given it better reach. Mann Mela has received over 70 submissions, from people who would like to see their own struggles and triumphs reflected in its evocative art. Some will feature in the museum; all will be voiced and uploaded in Hindi on itsoktotalk.in.
“We want diverse stories from people from different genders, identities, backgrounds, cultures and experiences,” says Pal. “The one thing we look for in common is an actionable outcome — a positive example.”
So, the first story showcase on the website is the tale of Sadam Hanjabam, a closeted gay man from Manipur. He discusses his substance abuse struggles, failed suicide attempts, and what it took to finally start accepting and loving himself. Hanjabam now heads a queer-rights organisation in his hometown.
In the third story, Tarini Chawla, a chartered accountant from Chandigarh, does the voiceover for the animated story of how her abandonment issues have followed her through life as an adult.
All the art is by the Quicksand design studio, with bases in Delhi, Goa and Bengaluru. “I feel very lucky to have worked on Sadam’s comic,” says one of their animators, aged 24. “There is a responsibility that comes when you are telling someone else’s story. You have to make sure you are using visual metaphors that are sensitive, but also capture the experience that the contributor is describing. I have lived the experience myself. Working on these comics has been affirming for me too, even though the contributors’ lives are completely different from mine.”
Each story takes about a month to produce, says Pal. “We go through a number of detailed and intimate interviews with the contributor, to decide which parts of the story to highlight and how.”
Not everyone needs to use their own name, or likeness. “We are working on one story with a non-binary person who will be represented by an abstract form,” says Pal. “The important thing is for everyone who wants to be heard to be .”