Minutes before the curtains go up, the trepidation-laced voices of the artistes ask about the size of the audience. The auditorium is almost full, they are told. Encouraged, they perform brilliantly for nearly two hours. And the ensuing applause tells them what their eyes cannot see - the hall is indeed full. For the dancers and their teacher, a full auditorium also means they are one step closer to realising a dream - garnering funds enough to build a hostel for visually handicapped dance students.
Barring the little louder-than-usual thumping of feet, there was nothing else that indicated that four of the seven performers' were visually handicapped. Their movements in classical as well as folk dances, in action as well as in expression, were in perfect sync with fellow dancers. And when they aligned diagonally to perfection, while performing a dance number, the spectators were spellbound. Here was a visual treat well worth braving the chilly winds that swept the city that evening. And, the performance was yet another instance of the human spirit persevering and moving beyond the barriers of disability.
The two Toronto performances titled 'Dances of India' by students of the Bangalore-based dance school, Natyanjali, were part of their recent, two-month long North American tour. The funds raised will be used to build a hostel on the outskirts of Bangalore, in India's southern state of Karnataka. "We have been forced to turn away students (from outside Bangalore) as we cannot provide accommodation. The problem is more acute for girls. In fact, two of my girl students are languishing in their village because they don't have a place to stay in the city. Each time there is a performance we get them to Bangalore a few days ahead for rehearsals, but if they had a place to stay they would be able to continue with their practice daily," says K Ashok Kumar, 39, Natyanjali's founder.
Although Kumar's students include the sighted as well as the visually handicapped, he is best known for his work with the latter. Performing Indian folk dances and classical dances like Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi, they have won many accolades both within and outside the country.
The dance journey for these students and their teacher began in a small school for blind students about 15 years ago. At that time, the principal of the school asked the then 21-year-old Kumar to choreograph a folk dance for a school function. As he assembled a group of students and started demonstrating some basic steps and gestures, it was optimism rather than strategy that drove Kumar.
He knew he was not getting anywhere because the students could not figure out what he was doing. Then one day, while Kumar agonised over the teaching of intricate steps and expressions to those who could not see them, a 13-year-old boy, Buse Gowda, walked up to him, ran his fingers over Kumar's hands and feet, felt the movements and tried to imitate them. Gowda, who is now a professional dancer and also runs a travel agency says, "I was just doing what I normally do when I try to perceive something I have not experienced before and do not understand."
Unused to such physical contact, Kumar was initially uneasy. However, as he watched Gowda imitating his moves awkwardly yet bearing a viable semblance to them, he knew this could work. So, as it happened, it was a student who guided the teacher on the teaching technique! Kumar then evolved a method that he named the "touch-and-feel" technique.
"I would strike dance poses and ask students to approach me, two at a time, to touch and discover my stance. And then I would ask them to hold me while I executed simple steps and mudras (gestures)," says Kumar. A fortnight later, the students were able to put up a folk dance performance.
And this marked the beginning of the story for many visually handicapped potential dancers. Some of them even wanted to learn Indian classical dance! "We had no idea what Indian classical dance was, but we wanted to learn it," say Gowda and Satish. Even as Kumar agreed to teach them, the following two years brought many frustrating moments to both the teacher and the taught. "There were times when teaching one step would take five hours," recalls Kumar.
For the students, too, it was nothing short of an ordeal. "You can be a little casual or inaccurate in folk dances, but in classical dance every move has to be correct," asserts Gowda. His friends and co-dancers, Satish, Sivaswamy and Tarakaramudu, agree. Despite the periods of frustration and despair at being unable to comprehend or execute some expressions or movements, they persevered, and gradually moved from the simple to the more complex movements.
Today, pride shines on their faces as they describe the responses to their performances, especially the group dances and ballets that involve complex movements.
Many of the ballets involve Kumar's sighted students also, as did the Toronto one. But such is the fluidity and grace of all the performers that it is hard to distinguish the sighted from the blind. How do they manage to emote without seeing? "When we hear the songs, the emotions automatically play out on our faces, and we are also guided by our teacher when needed," says Tarakaramudu.
Each performance is preceded by a thorough orientation of the stage. "Once a dancer went almost to the edge of the stage; and since then we draw a T on stage to mark our boundary," says Tarakaramudu, who is married with a child and makes his living by running a public telephone call kiosk.
Although all of Kumar's visually handicapped performers are passionate about dance and practice daily for a few hours, they entertain no hopes of making a livelihood from it. Each of them runs a small business that they live by. Sivaswamy however, has just completed his Master's in Social Work and intends to work for a Ph D in Mental Health.
Kumar no longer teaches at the blind school. Of his 70 students, 10 are visually handicapped. He says the main reason why he cannot teach blind students on a regular basis is because many of them (at blind schools) are outstation residents, living in hostels. "Once they finish high school they go back to their homes and are forced to discontinue dance. That's why I want to build a hostel for blind dancers so that they can pursue it on a continuous basis," says Kumar.
His students share the same concern. "We have been able to achieve something but we know there are others with potential and desire who haven't got an opportunity. And that's why we want to raise funds for the hostel," they say.
Dance has also given them self-confidence and an opportunity to give hope to others. "The notion that dance is a visual art has to be challenged by visually challenged people. And we were able to do that," says Gowda. In the year 2000, he won a national award for outstanding achievement in creative art.
Says Sivaswamy of their endeavour: "We can inspire people and we ourselves get inspired from what we do."