So I thought they could dance

After crossing 100 posts, I embarked upon a project to find classical dancers and others who provide dance opportunities and instruction to children who are underprivileged and/or differently abled in comparison to well-off, ‘normal’ children. In my previous post, (called Anybody Can Dance), I wrote about my watchman’s daughters, my maid’s grandson and his friends, and other underprivileged children who got to learn and enjoy dance from dancers like Nehha Bhatnagar and Archana Kaul.
In this, the second instalment in that series, I’m writing about three people – some dancers, some not – who’ve given the specially abled a chance to dance and perform: globally acclaimed dancer Astad Deboo, theatre artist Ritu Rae Chandra and therapist Rupa Dasgupta.

Astad Deboo

When they make a mistake, I do not want anyone to say - Oh, poor chap, can’t hear: Astad Deboo on dancing with the deaf

Globally acclaimed Indian dancer Astad Deboo has to his credit many exciting collaborations, but none, to me, as exciting as his work with the deaf, creating full-scale dance productions with people who can’t even hear the music. I interviewed him on his inspirations and the challenges he faces in this path-breaking work.

Q. What was your initial inspiration to start on this journey with deaf people?

A. Well, when I was trying to create work with other dancers and I was returning from an overseas journey, I just happened to meet these young deaf actors. I asked the director if I could hold a workshop for them and give them movement. For two years I did that, and then the actors themselves expressed a desire that I should spend more time with them. The following year I spent three weeks with them. I think they had great potential and I needed to mentor them and bring them to a certain level. I came in contact with other deaf groups and I mentored people in a university in Washington. That’s how my journey began.

Pic by Lalitha Venkat

Q. What are the challenges that you face in every new production when you adapt the storyline, music and choreography to suit the needs of the deaf?

A. I don’t, so to say, adapt. I know that I have a challenge to work with, that is, they cannot hear. The first thing that is taught to them is to count, like for a rhythm of eight. Once they learn to count, there is a uniformity and that is the beginning. With certain groups, like the Calcutta group, they were actors and I had to introduce dance movement. It was a limitation since they did not know dance movements. And I gave them movements that could be easily assimilated. This was easy since age-wise, they were 18 and above. With the other group from Chennai’s Clarke School, they were already trained in Bharatnatyam. So they already had a dance vocabulary and it was easy for them to pick up my movements. They were simple but there was control, balance, and with them, I created a 60-minute production. With others, it has been a 15 to 20 minute performance. This was a one-hour non-stop seamless production, and for this, I worked very closely with the music composer also. It was based on rasas. Each rasa had a different beat. If I could work on what he created for me, I could break it into dance vocabulary. The process of production is different with different groups.

Q. Are they able to pick up the abhinaya part of dance, the expressions and all?

A. Abhinaya is difficult and from among the girls who danced, only two or three could work on expressions. For the others, it was difficult. So I do not work on the abhinaya part, since it is not easy. Otherwise, the work gels and portrays what I want to say in the choreography.

Pic by Monika Ghurde

Q. What has been your greatest frustration, and how has working with the deaf helped you?

A. Frustrations are always there. In India, when you are working with the deaf, you have to have the right kind of floor. Calcutta had a wooden floor, but in Chennai, there was a normal mosaic floor. The wooden floor is very important since it is through the floor that the vibrations go through. If I need them to stop, I thump on the floor and then they look at me for further instructions. In India, this is a major drawback. Secondly, sometimes, when I speak, I feel that I am not speaking to them, so they haven’t caught what I am trying to say. That lack of communication happens. I push my performers to the brink of excellence. I push them hard. They break down and get frustrated. These are processes that are part of the production and when the work is applauded and appreciated, they know that it was worth it.

Q: You say it has been a pilgrimage to work with them. Please elaborate.

A. It has been like a journey. If you see my work, I have worked in few productions with dancers. I have worked with drummers, martial artists, puppeteers. I have worked with other dancers mostly overseas. So each collaboration is like a pilgrimage to me to reach my destination, in the sense that the work is created, seen, performed, sees the light of day and is appreciated. And a pilgrimage comes to an end, and with that, I move on. I am working with deaf children in Bangalore at the Kothavala school. It is going to come up sometime next year. It is going to be a challenge because they are neither dancers nor actors - they are just a group of enthusiastic youngsters who like moving. But their perception is different from mine. They have seen some of my work, they are aware, since I danced for them and showed them a video, so they know where they are heading. The Bangalore work is at a very preliminary stage. I don’t even know what direction the choreography is going to take. It is still at the stage of workshops, with which too I am not very consistent. I have a lot of other projects going on. I have an assistant who should be able to make the movement happen even during my absence, since I travel a lot. The assistant should be able to keep the work going. The school does not have a dance teacher. I should not have to waste time when I work on the production.

Pic by Lalitha Venkat

Q: How does dancing help them?

A: I’m not using dance as therapy but as an art form, in which they want to participate. Working with me also raises their level of confidence, and they become role models for their community.
An art form is shared, mentored. I don’t look at it (their deafness) as an impairment, I don’t make any concessions for them. You have to work hard. When they make a mistake, I do not want anyone to say oh, poor chap, can’t hear. I don’t want that pity. Certain people are talented and I want them to make an effort. You must work hard and have determination. If you’re an average mover, with time and practice, you’ll get there, at least as part of the group if not an individual performer. It’s certainly not therapy. They communicate very well, they have a language. We use the art form and get people who have talent, then help them showcase it.

Seeing those who can’t see
Khushi – Ek Ehsaas is a short play which was performed by the children of JPM School run by the Blind Relief Association. There were around 50 children, who were all visually impaired. Most children could not see at all, while a few had limited sight. The play had been directed by theatre artist Ritu Rae Chandra. At the end of the play, a very relaxed looking Ritu said, “I have been in theatre for the last 15 years. When Radhika Bharat Ram approached me to do it (this production), I readily said yes. Everybody asked me about the challenges, since the children are visually impaired, and I said, how different are they from the other children? They are the same as children from all over the world, and working with them was the same. I have travelled a lot, read a lot, and believe strongly in the Gita. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama, and the concept of this play was a message that I thought these kids could give. The 11 children who danced have partial vision, and the rest are totally blind. The choreographer, a young woman called Archana Shiromani, had fun working with these children. I have enjoyed every bit of this journey, and it has been special to me.”

The stage setting for the first act had beds and windows on the side curtains, showing a house and a tree in the background. The choir sung Mere Paas Aao Mere Doston from the Hindi film, and thus began the storytelling. The story goes like this – a group of cats wander in from the jungle, load on to a jeep and enter the city. In the city, a cat goes missing. The rest of them wander out to look for it. This group of cats is caught by some naughty kids and sold for a little money. Khushi the cat, who is one of the group, is wrapped in a newspaper and left for dead. Along comes a King, called Dayalupur ke raja, a rather obvious name, and he takes Khushi away. He takes good care of it and the cat now becomes a part of the King’s court.

Then enters a character called Professor Jhunjhunwala, who is an Oxford graduate and very proud of his knowledge. The king advises him to give up his pride and attitude, and Khushi is a part of the process of his giving up his pride. This was followed by a song and a dance sequence. In another song and dance interlude, the children danced a contemporary number with blue ribbons. They could even create waves with the ribbons in coordination.

Finally, after many more hilarious ups and downs that the performers and the children in the audience enjoyed greatly, the production had a happy ending. This was a very simple story with moral messages given in between through characters. Many side characters were introduced by turns to give these messages – that pride, money and knowledge are not everything. At times, a bit of humour was added, which had the children in the audience in splits. The child portraying the character of Khushi had all the naughtiness and the one playing the king had all the maturity and confidence. The interspersed songs from Hindi films were peppy – Mere Paas Aao Mere Doston, Chakke Pe Chakka, Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh, Uthe Sab Ke Kadam and Aaj Main Upar Aasmaan Neeche. The coordination between the dancers showed the effort put in by the choreographer.  It was a fun play for the child performers as well as for the audience.

Note: Videos by Anoop Arora

Special dance

Rupa Dasgupta works with autistic and other special children, and has been doing so for many years at Sarahana. I started speaking to her when they organised an annual function and I learnt the kids would be dancing and performing other fun activities. While no video of the event was permitted, Rupa explained their work and what role dance plays in the children's education. "I have been a paediatric occupational and a neuro-developmental therapist for 30 years now," Rupa explained about her work. "I started my work from Sweden and then went to the US. In 2000, I came back to India and started working with special children on a home visit basis. This made me understand the need for more therapists of my experience and how it was important for me to reach out to more children. One such mother of a special child became a good friend of mine, and from there, we both started our organisation from her rather large basement. And slowly, the word spread about how different Sarahana was and our good work, and so we grew."

Working with the children involves no hurdles for her, she says. "I consider hurdles learning challenges. They always teach us something new and hence I look to such challenges," she says. "The real challenges that energise me are firstly, lack of funds, poorly trained or skilled staff. The new graduates who come out as special educators and therapists are getting a shoddy deal as their education in their colleges or programmes is not updated and modern. They still teach the theories of the 1960s."

Dance helped the children immensely, she says, and not just because it's fun. "Dance, music and creative outlets are extremely important for all, whether special or not," she says. "Dance and music brings them happiness and that is apparent from the smile on their faces and their eagerness to participate in the program. Dance also helps them understand body movements, move according to the music and stay in rhythm. The applause of the viewers for them makes it all worth it. Gives them a tremendous self-esteem and confidence boost."

The work she does is intensely satisfying, she says. "Working with the children is such a pleasure. It is a whole new world of love, patience and full of surprises. Not a day goes by that we don't learn something new. I live in a world of love and giving. It is beautiful!" Rupa gushes. "I feel the pain of the parents and I can help them with guidance. They come to me initially with tears in their eyes and then after a year or so, they come to me smiling, happy about the child's achievement - it makes my day. That's my reward!"

Note: Pics sent by Rupa Dasgupta

. . . to be continued