Celebrating ‘madness’ with pride

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A two-day event, Merchants of Madness, brings together voices that strive to normalise and reclaim the term ‘mad’.  

H ow many forms can madness take? “Numerous, and all those shades of madness are who you are,” poet and writer Jhilmil Breckenridge shares with Delhi Post. As the co-founder and managing trustee of Delhi-based Bhor Foundation, an organisation engaged in mental health advocacy, Breckenridge is strongly against the idea that “mental illness is an imbalance in the brain”.

‘Mad. Incurable. Violent. Suicidal. Chemical imbalances. Crazy’ are the first few phrases that describe ‘A Drop of Sunshine’, a film by Aparna Sanyal, which captures the powerful story of  Reshma Valliappan, a schizophrenic. The 2011-film is still relevant when it comes to the society’s understanding of what ‘madness’ entails. Now an activist, Valliappan tells Delhi Post, “Redefining madness around all of us is the need of the hour.”

These are two of the numerous voices that will come together for the first edition of the #MerchantsOfMadness Festival, Delhi 2018, on September 1 and 2 at antiSOCIAL, Hauz Khas Village.

Supported by Mariwala Health Initiative, Sangath, It’s Ok To Talk and CREA, the two-day event “celebrates madness, neurodiversity and mental health rights”. It brings across “merchant in every city, someone, who has lived through mental distress or condition and has a voice”.

“Until now, there have been sessions and workshops organised by activists, psychiatrists or academicians in the past. But we have gone a step ahead to have people who have lived through such experiences and these are merchants of madness for us,” Valliappan, who is the brain behind Pune-based The Red Door (TRD) initiative, explains to Delhi Post.

Reshma Valliappan

She continues, “We hope to spark a discourse to challenge how we understand and relate to mental illness. By bringing in different individuals from all fields (those who have received mental health services and those who have not) to relate and speak openly about their experiences with madness, depression, anxiety and mental health, we hope to normalise and reclaim the term ‘madness’.” Concurs Breckenridge, adding, “Put another way, rather than reducing people’s experience of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia to a mere terminology of ‘madness’, we strive to bring a change at a community level so that everyone feels included.”

The objective, they say, is to advocate for the universality of the term as one that is positive and does not stigmatise those who receive mental health services. “Experiential exercises, will allow us to step into each other’s realities and empathise,” says Breckenridge.

Over the course of the two days, performance as well as art-based events such as film screenings, panel discussions, small workshops and open mic sessions will be organised. There will be workshops such as art workshop by Bengaluru-based artist, Sonaksha

Iyengar, a play by director Juhi Jha titled ‘Irada Kuch Aur Tha’ and a book launch for the recently brought out poetry collection, Reclamation Song by Breckenridge.

Jhilmil Breckenridge

The panels will feature protagonists of Breathe (by PSBT), Sherin Noordheen of Non-Profit Organisation, Let’s Live Kerala, Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Eleanor Hodgson, activists Dhrubo Jyoti, Rachelle Bharathi Chandran, Nidhi Goyal among others. “There is nothing more powerful than creativity which is a language in itself that can be felt and shared,” says Valliappan.

Valliappan and Breckenridge met during the screening of the documentary, ‘A Drop of Sunshine and quickly connected through mental health advocacy meetings, similar outlook towards alternative forms of healing and their emphasis on mental health rights. “This is a leap of faith for us and I couldn’t have been happier given the kind of support that we have received whether in terms of panel of speakers, organisers or the team,” says Breckenridge, who is a strong advocate of Article 16 of the United Nations’ Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities which aims to improve access to society, education and employment.

Their first process started when TRD and Orchestrated Q’works collaborated back in 2017 for the ‘Voices of Madness’ project at Gyaan Adab, Pune.

“Built on a script, Merchants of Madness was first published in an academic journal by Valliappan that examines psychosis, schizophrenia and the underlying consciousness of the voices in the head.”

The project was first given a SEED grant by International feminist membership organisation, The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) for implementation in Pune.

The Merchants of Madness aims to travel and “plant a seed” in a new city every year within India. Forerunners from previous festivals will travel to newer cities to help build, guide and mentor newer ‘merchants’. Valliappan tells Delhi Post, “We hope that by 2020, we would have established a cohort of merchants from India who will represent the festival at AWID 2020 forum.”