Theatre for Holistic Development (THD) is an innovative teaching methodology that combines elements of music, dance, drama, mime, arts and crafts to foster creativity in and develop life skills for children and adults with special needs. This successful technique has been developed by Dr Ambika Kameshwar, founder of the Ramana Sunritya Aalaya School (RASA) in Chennai.
Kameshwar has spent a lifetime studying the potential of performing arts to bring about positive behavioral changes. Initiated into the nuances of music and dance at an early age, she grew up to be a passionate proponent of the arts. However, she admits, "the idea about music and dance being more than performing arts would have remained somewhere in the realms of my fantasy, had not opportunities presented themselves to explore the efficacy of my theory."
Devotees of Ramana Maharishi of Tiruvannamalai, Kameshwar and her sister were approached by a family friend to teach dance to students at his Ramana Maharishi School for the Blind in Bangalore. College students at the time, they eagerly accepted the challenge and, thus, embarked on a lifelong journey to explore the therapeutic potential of the performing arts.
At the blind school, students learnt dance steps by feeling mudras and measuring spaces. "The final performance was beautiful, but it was a learning process for us too. The students had not only learnt dance movements, their personalities bloomed almost overnight. We saw faltering diffidence being replaced by confidence and enthusiasm," says Kameshwar.
After two years at the blind school, in 1985 Kameshwar moved to Chennai and began volunteering at the Spastic Society. Unlike the blind school, where she dealt with only visual disability, at the Spastic Society she worked with children facing a wide range of disabilities.
What followed was a period of intense study into the specific problems faced by each student and brainstorming sessions with speech therapists, physiotherapists and other caregivers to tailor therapeutic techniques to individual needs. Kameshwar tapped into her knowledge of music and dance to develop techniques in tandem with accepted medical methods. She named the result the Creative Movement in Education (CME).
With the success and widespread recognition of her work, in 1989 Kameshwar founded RASA.
Throughout this period, she continued her graduate studies, gaining a doctorate in Indian Theatre, followed by a Post-Doctoral Fellowship in the use of theatre arts as a holistic developmental tool for the Government of India. She says, "Theatre opened out more avenues; as I acquired knowledge in the various facets of theatre, drama and speech, I added them into my repertoire of techniques." To reflect this change, CME became Theatre for Holistic Development (THD).
"The unique aspect of THD is that it can benefit every child, whether or not s/he has special needs. This is a fun way of learning since it is non-threatening and active rather than a passive rote learning exercise. It is specially suited for children with special needs because it is adapted to their pace of learning. Ostensibly, they are just playing and having fun during the entire process, but in reality are being made to learn lessons in an unobtrusive way."
Teachers at RASA are trained in THD methodology. Says Hemalatha Manohar, Coordinator, "At RASA, holistic assessment of students is first carried out to get an insight into their problems areas, whether cognitive, motor, language or social skills. Developmental goals are set accordingly and sessions are mapped out to meet these goals. Though each child has different needs, they are grouped in small homogenous groups of six to eight students and put in charge of a teacher...A periodic review to assess children is done to make sure that the goals are being met."
RASA emphasizes the need for early diagnosis and intervention. According to Anita Mohan, a teacher at RASA, "Whether the disability faced by the child is slight or severe, an early diagnosis is important as it helps in taking control...(and) facilitates higher level of improvement."
According to Mathangi Ramprasad, member of the fund raising team and teacher, parents also have a crucial role to play. "It is important for parents to be aware of the limitations of their child and not have unrealistic expectations. An enthusiastic and positive approach from the parent brings additional benefit."
In 1999, RASA set up a vocational training unit to pave the way towards economic independence for adults and children with special needs. The unit trains students in block printing, carpentry, needlework, foil embossing, tailoring and various other arts and crafts. The sale of items manufactured provides students with a valuable source of income. "There is a tangible sense of empowerment in the students at the vocational centre," says Mohan.
Jayashree, a RASA student, was promoted to the vocational school two years ago. "I get orders from customers and it feels good to generate an income on my own," she says.
RASA provides its therapy free of cost, relying on donation by parents and supporters to run the school. It currently operates out of rented premises. Although it would like to purchase the building, it cannot afford to do so at the present.
In 1994, RASA introduced a one-year teacher's training course in THD methodology. In 2006, it added a distance learning module in order to make this course accessible to outstation candidates. It also offers a pre-primary teacher's training program to equip teachers with the skills to impart primary education in a creative way.
With 25 years of experience in the field of rehabilitation, Kameshwar says, "The dimensions of theatre, music and dance are so vast, we can only hope to touch the fringes of this vast ocean. Our endeavour must be to increase the repertory of the compiled procedures to increase avenues for all-round development."