The world’s first professional dance theatre by differently-enabled people has impressed audiences worldwide.
THERE’S a hushed silence in the New Delhi auditorium as a troupe of dancers seamlessly execute scenes from the Hindu scripture Ramayana in ballet form.
The mesmerised audience stare in disbelief as the graceful artists, ranging from five to 25 years old, are all physically and mentally challenged. Most of the production’s cast are on crutches and wheelchairs, while four-year-old Zubed – who has no fingers or toes – is crawling.
Other performers, including children with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, speech and learning disabilities, are moving around on wheelchairs, tricycles, crutches, walkers and sticks to enact their roles. As the curtains come down, a thunderous applause fills the auditorium, leaving many misty-eyed.
Ability Unlimited (AU), the world’s first professional dance theatre by differently-enabled people, has floored audiences worldwide with its revolutionary concept and talented artistes. With a bank of over 200 performers ranging from tiny tots to adults, the troupe has given hundreds of well-received performances across India, the United States, Britain, Canada, Europe and South-East Asia since it was established in 1998.
Be it the hallowed portals of the British House of Commons, state functions for visiting heads of state or television shows, the dance group has shone all platforms.
Interestingly, AU’s performances which are based on traditional Indian folklore and mythology, run a gamut of performances, from Martial Arts On Wheels, Ramayana On Wheels, Durga, and Bhagavad Gita, to The Panchatantra Tales.
What is the source of inspiration for this unique group? AU’s founder Syed Salauddin Pasha, 46, a trained classical dancer and a disabled rights activist, says the main idea was to showcase the talent of differently-enabled people and use performing arts as a vehicle for social change.
“We want to change the apathy and negativity that surrounds these people in various spheres – education, employment and arts – through professional dance-theatre performances. When my artistes perform, it conveys a message of equality, dignity and equal opportunity to the entire society,” he adds.
All the dancers suffer from various disabilities; some are visually challenged, hearing-impaired, autistic, dyslexic and some have cerebral palsy.
How does the group manage to make stars out of such people? All members, according to the troupe’s coordinators, have to undergo mandatory training under experts and psychologists. They are then employed as salaried professionals and become part of the troupe. Apart from performing on stage, the artistes also have to handle different aspects of theatre production like art administration, choreography, costume design, make-up and lighting.
The performers hone their skills by attending workshops by well-known dance gurus, choreographers, music composers and costume designers.
“This exposure gives them the vital opportunity to become professionals,” explains Syed Salauddin.
“We call our theatre productions therapeutic,” says the founder. “The artists are taught in the nuances of Natya Shiksha or fundamental theatre techniques, which are then demonstrated to them by physically challenged trainers.”
The training methods are based on the psychological premise that healing will take place subconsciously. After undergoing the community rehabilitation workshop, each member attends a workshop. The participant is never actually informed that he is undergoing “therapy”; healing occurs naturally.
According to Syed Salauddin, as soon as a performer comes to terms with his disability, he is initiated into “discovering and cultivating his confidence and capabilities”. Once his talent is showcased at a public forum, his self-worth and interactive skills increase.
AU has also broken new ground in reinventing classical dance forms like Bharatnatyam and Kathakali by performing them on wheelchairs.
According to Khali, 23, a troupe member who suffers from multiple sclerosis, wheelchairs offer an advantage when it comes to performing many steps with speed and precision. “The spinning speed of our wheelchairs is much faster than an accomplished dancer’s spins!”
Syed Salauddin has conducted workshops for disabled children of tsunami victims’ families in collaboration with Unesco. A recipient of the National Award for his outstanding performance in the field of empowerment of persons with disabilities, he was also featured in the Limca Book Of World Records for creating 100 dance theatre productions and 10,000 performances by persons with disabilities across the globe.
The activist has also directed Europe’s biggest therapeutic theatre project, Ramayana On Wheels, performed with Finnish children. The multi-faceted choreographer, an erstwhile scholar at Cornell University, New York; Sutra Dance Theatre, Malaysia; and Dance Theatre Raatikko, Finland, has also orchestrated Durga and Martial Arts On Wheels with 200 differently-enabled children and adults.
In addition, the activist’s umbrella company – the Indian Therapeutic Theatre Productions (ITTP) – has worked with thousands of special children from different nationalities. AU also runs a pan-India campaign to create awareness about people with disabilities in the education sector.
While India is home to a whopping 100 million disabled people, only an abysmal 2% of the disabled population are educated and only 1% are employed.
“Our endeavours have helped in mainstreaming the marginalised by moulding them into confident and productive citizens,” sums up Syed Salauddin.
■ Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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