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International Dance Day: Here’s how differently-abled dancers found a new lease of life

On International Dance Day, differently-abled dancers give us a glimpse into their indomitable spirit and how they made dance their passion.

art and culture Updated: Apr 29, 2018 18:05 IST
Etti Bali
Etti Bali
Hindustan Times
International Dance Day,World Dance Day,Dancing On Wheels
Dancers use specially-designed wheelchairs that are stronger and lighter.(Amal KS/HT Photo)

As the world celebrates International Dance Day, tomorrow, creating magic with moving feet and sequenced steps, we meet performers who redefine the art form. Dancers, whose limbs have given up in the face of illnesses like Polio and who’s hearing faculties are afflicted, dance in wheelchairs like there is no tomorrow. With indomitable spirit, they show us that one doesn’t need feet to dance. At the studios, we saw a paraphernalia of lives always on the move with over-packed suitcases and wheelchairs used by dancers.

Meeting the kind-hearted mavens

Syed Sallauddin Pasha, an exponent of Bharatanatyam and Kathak, is a veteran, with 30 years of experience. He heads the dance academy, Ability Unlimited, where he works with differently-abled students and hones them in various dance forms. “In my village, I saw many differently-abled persons being ostracised. They are not treated with dignity. I come from a family of healers and had these people visiting our place. Dignity, equality and inclusion are very important in a person’s life. I realised that dance and music have a healing power; it works on the micro-cosmic cell of the human body,” he says. With an idea to transform the nation’s notion around such persons, he began work on wheelchairs. “Wheelchairs have always been considered a medium of transporting differently-abled persons. I invented the technique of using wheelchair as a dancing tool. We need two feet to dance, but I used wheels as legs. So the wheels perform the dance. It’s just someone has to train them with patience, perseverance and persistence. I practice on the wheelchair for 6-8 hours to understand and experience. Every movement has its own dynamic,” he says.

At the second studio, a motley group of sprightly boys welcomes us. Led by Kathak exponent Rani Khanam, who herself has spent over three decades dancing, the boys at Aamad are adept in classical dance forms, as well as yoga and martial arts. “We all are born for a reason and it is important to identify the purpose of life. I realised that dance is more than a decorative art form and this is how I started working with differently-abled persons. I began with conducting workshops and residency programmes, and that took me around the world. Art helps in sensitising people about various issues,” she says. They perform on specially-designed wheelchairs that are lighter and stronger.

“Being a Muslim woman, I had to face a lot of problems. I decided to take up dance as a passion but it was very hard to make it a career. Dance ibaadat hai, khuraak hai soul ke liye (dance is like prayer; it is food for the soul). When I used to practice, I used to cover my ghungroo with pieces of cloth so that namaaz prayers at my home are not disrupted,” she says. Born and brought up in Bihar, she came to Delhi in 1977, and continued dancing along with pursuing . “Through dance, I saw and experienced the world in a new light. I started believing that there should be a meaning to each art form. Hum Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb ke log hain. Humne chhatth pooja mein Panditji ke saath jaate the, aur Eid pe humaare yahaan se sookhi sewaiyaan unke yahaan jaati thi. Artist log inn sab cheezon se upar hote hain. Insaan ka sabse bada dharm insaaniyat ka hai. Mazhab bilkul personal hai, aur humein ek doosre ki izzat karni chahiye.”

Here is the story of all the dancers we met:

Sonu Verma, 31, was born and brought up in Delhi. He is an artist and a dancer. Sonu, who has been learning dance professionally for the last 8 years, was always fond of the art form. Adept in Bharatanatyam and Sufi dance forms, he got Polio as a child and has 80% disability. “I faced a lot of problems because of that. The same kids who bullied me as a child now salute me. When I was in school, I heard of Guruji (Syed Pasha) and asked him to take me under his wing. Unhone bahut mehnat kari hai mere saaath (he has worked really hard to hone me),” he says. Growing up in a family that struggled to make ends meet, he nonetheless made his dreams come true. “My parents were always supportive. Voh chahte the ki main apne pairon pe khada ho jaoon.

His first stage show was in 2010, where he played the character of lord Ram in the dance drama, Ramayana on Wheels. “I was very nervous about going on stage. But I had the blessings of Guruji and the support of other dancers. Now, I am not nervous about performing,” he says.

Stunts, poses and mudras are no big deal for these dancers. (Manoj Verma/HT PHOTO)

Manoj Baraik, 29, belongs to Jharkhand, but calls Delhi his home. Baraik, who holds two bachelor’s degrees, is afflicted with Polio and is 60% disabled. “Earlier, in terms of primary education and provisions for the disabled, there were not many facilities. Guruji had visited our school and taken dance auditions. My first stage show on a national scale was in the year 2000, in Delhi. I played Ravana and was very nervous to perform on a stage where only legends have been known to perform. It felt like a new birth. Ek nayi energy aayi life mein,” he says. Having performed internationally with his troupe, he says that the audience’s reactions are different there. “In the US, people are taken in by our culture. They appreciate it more. Also, they have better facilities like ramps, disabled parking and commuting is easy. Here, there’s still a long way to go,” he says.

Every dancer in their group is honed in more than one craft. Even those who don’t have a mobility disability know how to dance on wheelchairs and crutches. “Guruji wants us all to learn everything so that we are self-sufficient. Even those of us who can hear and speak, have learned sign language. This feels like second home to us,” he says.

A specially-designed wheelchair helps the dancer recreate the Whirling Dervish dance form. (Manoj Verma/HT PHOTO)

Vikas Kumar, 20, is studying in class 12 and is 100% hearing impaired. With a mischievous grin, he communicates in sign language that he is able to balance both—studies and dance. Manoj, here, takes on the role of the translator: “It does not affect his routine and he gives equal importance to both. As a kid, when he used to see other kids dance, he was drawn. He joined Guruji 7 years back.” We pick up cues from his signs and notice a sudden gloom take over. “Growing up, he spent most of his time indoors. He wanted to communicate with other kids, but this only led to confusion,” translates Manoj. His grandmother used to tell him stories at night, and his family always stood by his side. Vikas signs that whenever he is problem, he always goes to Manoj for guidance. “Guruji makes sure to talk to our families to see if they are ok with us learning dance,” says Manoj.

Rohit Kumar, 21, is studying in class 10, wants to take up dance as a profession and is 100% hearing impaired. With a gesture that reminds us of Arjuna from the epic poem Mahabharata (his sole focus on the eye of the fish). With Manoj’s help, we get to know that his interest in dance grew from watching Western dance shows on television. “But he had never seen differently-abled people dance, so he could not express his desire to dance. But when he met Guruji, he showed his eagerness to join him,” Manoj translates for us.“He is very attached to his mother and always goes to her for everything,” Manoj adds. Even though he, and other hearing-impaired dancers in the group, can’t listen to the music, they take cues from other dancers’ body language and move accordingly. He signs and his expressions change from that of fear to that of determination. We understand what he is trying to sign: “I was nervous before the first stage show, but the applause from the audience cheered me on. As I am doing more shows, the fear is diminishing.”

Sonu Gupta, 32, is a national-level table tennis player, and is employed with ESIC (Employees’ State Insurance Corporation). He also has 80% disability caused by Polio. “I was 2 years old when I got high fever at night, but the doctors couldn’t figure out what had happened. I come from Kanpur, and our farmlands had to be sold for my treatment. My upper body recovered, but my legs couldn’t. I started dancing in 2005, after meeting my Guruji,” he says. He is adept in martial arts and Indian classical dance, and has performed on reality television shows. “People often ask in disbelief: wheelchair pe dance? But I ignore them and walk on the path I have chosen. Hum chahte hain ki humein dekh kar log aur motivate ho (I want that others like me get motivated and are not afraid to face life),” he says. The hardest part, about dancing on a wheelchair, is maneuvering it. “It took me some time to understand that the wheels are my feet and I have to move them like that,” he says.

Dancers at Aamad make an Indian classical dance posture. (Amal KS/HT PHOTO)

Manoj Kumar, 30, has been dancing since 2007. He was afflicted with Polio when he was 7 months old and has a 57% disability. “I was interested in dance and theatre since I was in school. My parents always wanted me to be self-sufficient and were supportive of my decision. I want to tell others like me to not be disheartened. Disability ka matlab yeh nahi ki aap kisi se kam hain (being disabled does not make you any less capable than others),” he says.

Muhammad Aadil Khan, 23, hails from Bulandshahr, runs a food stall in Mayur Vihar, and performs freestyle and Bharatanatyam among other dance forms. He is also 92% disabled in both feet and left hand. “Initially, my father was reluctant when I told him I wanted to dance. But now he comes to drop me at practice sessions,” he smiles.

Chetan Upadhyay, 22, is a final year student in Delhi University’s Deen Dayal Upadhyay College and has 80% disability in right leg. “I got high fever when I was 3 months old and my parents think that the doctors gave me some wrong injection,” he says. Dancing since 2007, he says that working with a wheelchair was difficult, initially. “To make poses or do stunts like normal, but on a wheelchair, is tough. I have honed it over time,” says Chetan, who has performed Bhangra on Wheels, Bharatanatyam and Yoga on Wheels.

Amir Khan, 23, is pursuing a bachelor’s degree from Delhi University’s School of Open Learning. He also runs a cyber cafe has 76% disability in left leg. “I like doing handstands on the wheelchair. It was tough in the beginning, but now it is easy. I was quite nervous before my first stage show, but I took God’s name and performed,” he says.

Rohit Kumar Pasi, 23, has just finished his schooling and wishes to enroll in Delhi University’s School of Open Learning. He got Polio when he was 2 years old and has 90% disability in both legs. “I joined the group in 2008, and want to make dance my focus in life,” he says. His first show was at the Commonwealth Games held in Delhi in 2010. “I was very nervous and tried relaxing by talking to other dancers in the group. Public’s response after any performance feels good and we want people to know that our disability is only in our feet,” he says, adding that in cases like his, it is very important for parents to be supportive.

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First Published: Apr 29, 2018 18:03 IST