Chariots of the gods

Rooted

Suspended high over the stage are a few wheelchairs, glinting in a smoldering haze of shifting lights. Hanging in the air is also a sense of suspense. Well, what does one expect to encounter from a show billed as ‘dance on wheels’?  

In a moment, five wheelchairs come rushing in, spinning precariously fast. The dancers on the wheelchairs perform, challenging the jathis and thillanas of Bharatnatyam, yoga on wheels (even the tough shirsasana and mayurasana), and many gravity-defying postures, everything in perfect synchrony with the measured and streamlined movements so typical of classical Bharatnatyam. Meanwhile, the meditative ‘Sufi on Wheels’, where the performers spin in tandem with mesmerising fluidity, was sketched on the encounter between the wandering mystic Shamsuddin Tabrizi and Mevlana Rumi in Turkey, around the 13th century.  

When the dance ends, onlookers are stunned and applaud incredulously. After all, no one expects to be treated to a flawless dance spectacle by physically challenged persons. Dance critic Mouli Rangan, one of those who witnessed this performance, says, “I was on the lookout for possible discrepancies; but there were none. Even the tough aspects like sharukkal adavu (sliding) and rangakramana (covering the stage) were handled correctly.” A beaming Guru Syed Salauddin Pasha, dancer-choreographer and founder of Ability Unlimited (AU), India’s and the world’s only physically challenged professional dance-theatre troupe says, “The mudras and abhinayas of my Bharatnatyam dancers match those of the best in the field, and the spin of my ‘children’ on their wheelchairs can match any accomplished Kathak dancer’s spins.” Each performer of Ability Unlimited is either physically or mentally challenged. 

By now, after hundreds of performances in the country and abroad — including several in the US, and a few in Canada, Italy, West Indies, and even a performance at the British Parliament’s House of Commons, and the inevitable standing ovations that ensue — the dancers of Delhi-based Ability Unlimited are used to this kind of stunned applause.

Incidentally, Pasha figures in the Limca Book of World Records for creating 100 dance theatre productions and 10,000 performances by persons with disabilities. Pasha founded Ability Unlimited (AU) in 1999. And despite the hiccups, the huge financial challenges involved in running such a non-profit venture, the show has been going on triumphantly.  

Wheels of life 

The suspended wheelchairs are there for a reason. “For us, wheelchair is not a mere mechanical contraption. For me and my people, wheelchairs are like Lord Krishna’s chariot. We do puja to it, as to divinity,” says Pasha. Artistes of Ability Unlimited include people affected by dyslexia, hearing impairment, cerebral palsy, autism and visual impairment, who were identified from slums and poor tenements, and groomed into dancers by Pasha. For this, Pasha and his team visit slums, talk to parents of challenged children, telling them that their children can have a career through Ability Unlimited. Pasha says, “Imagine the stifling trauma these children would be going through; with no access to education, play, or even the possibility of stepping outside their homes.”

Like Khali, who has multiple sclerosis and dances in a wheelchair now; Manoj Baraik, another dancer on the wheelchair; artist Zubair, who has no limbs; or Gulshan Kumar, who has a Guinness World Records for doing most spins in a minute — 63 — on a wheelchair.  

At Ability Unlimited, challenged persons are taught various aspects of the arts, from classical Kathak and Bharatnatyam to Sufi music, choreography, photography, lighting, costume design, stage setting and film editing, depending on the strengths and interests of the children. They are groomed into professional performers who can earn a living from the arts.  

Pasha’s own story is no less inspiring. As a boy, Pasha was turned away by a reputed Bharatnatyam teacher in a small village in Karnataka because he was a ‘Muslim’. Now, Pasha narrates Sanskrit shlokas flawlessly and teaches the world not just dance, but lessons in courage and humanity too. After painstaking research (that sometimes involved Pasha trying postures and movements after tying his legs together to understand the limitations of the handicap), he evolved these choreographies, effectively replacing the movements of the human leg with the man-made wheel of the wheelchair.

Ability Unlimited keeps expanding its repertoire of choreographies constantly, which now includes apart from the very popular Ramayana on wheels, martial arts on wheels, Sufi dance on wheels, Durga, Bhagawad Gita, Panchatantra Tales, etc. Many of these choreographies, like Ramayana on wheels, have won AU a number of international and national awards. Curiously, Pasha equates Sufi mysticism with Hindu Advaitism. The common roots of religious thoughts seem so self-evident to Pasha. “Look at word taxonomy: Puran(a) and the Quran; or the movements of namaz posture and the surya namaskar posture” 

Dance as a therapeutic tool  

The creative arts are also therapeutic, believes Pasha, who is a former scholar at Cornell University, New York, and happens to be someone who has worked with Malaysia’s Sutra Dance Theatre and Finland’s Dance Theatre, Raatikko. Incidentally, Pasha also directed Europe’s biggest therapeutic theatre project, Ramayana on Wheels, with Finnish children and adults. He looks at dance and theatre as a therapeutic tool, both for his performing troupe and the general public. “Dance and theatre work on both the body and the spirit, something that is critical for anyone with a physical challenge. And when they get to stage the performance, it brings confidence in their bodies,” points out Pasha. Pasha has also conducted therapeutic theatre workshops for affected persons like tsunami victims, with UNESCO support.   

Alongside, AU conducts dance theatre classes, choreography classes, summer dance workshops and the like to keep itself financially afloat. AU has also been holding workshops for corporate houses, universities and art centres. “Well, it is difficult not to catch the positive energy that resonates from these people,” says Kannan, MD, Infratech Infrastructure, which has had his employees participate in a theatre workshop with AU. Adds Pasha, “Don’t offer sympathy. My artistes don’t need it; they just need opportunities.”

The fact that the Indian environment is so disabled-unfriendly, despite its over 70 million disabled population, irks Pasha. “We have made them a silent and invisible minority, creating barriers not just for their access to public places, but also to jobs, entertainment, everything. Look at this auditorium, for instance; it is a top grade one as far as acoustics and other facets are concerned, but even this one has no ramp leading up to the stage or into the audience gallery. I couldn’t spot a single person on the wheelchair in the audience,” he says wryly. You can watch AU’s choreographies at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94498P3_qH0 and

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNj15ZT66C0. Getting inspired is inevitable.

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