Their handicap is not a hindrance

Everyone knows the story of Paradise Lost. An Elizabethan poet, overcoming his physical hindrance sang “Heavenly Muse” and here, nearly 400 years later, 30-odd youths--all visually challenged from the streets of Kolkata with their Miltonic “unconquerable will” and “the courage never to submit or yield” have literally created “a Heaven out of a Hell”.

Anyadesh, a theatre group for the visually challenged, may be only one of its kind in the world and it is not the story of Paradise Lost nor the story of “Fall of Man”. But it is an epic of some undaunted human beings, who created their own paradise on earth.

Anyadesh, consists of unemployed job-seekers, hawkers and people who’ve been told they have no prospects in life. Earning little more than Rs 100 per show, they perform in West Bengal’s villages, small theatres, local parks and even on roadsides.

Established in April 2005--the project was initially called Drishtihiner Barnap­ri­chay (alphabets for the blind), an awareness programme conducted through theatre for blind mothers. After realising the uniqueness of the project and the enthusiasm of the people, the authorities decided to widen the scope of the scheme and in October 2007 Drishtihiner Barnapri­chay was rechristened Anyadesh allowing access to visually challenged people.

“The visually challenged always feel that they are an outcaste in society and this sense of insecurity hinders their natural growth, suppresses their inner talent. So to take people out of this complex psychology we made the platform open to all. We didn’t want to restrict this platform so that everyone like us can express their feelings and feel that they are also a part of society. They also can contribute to the development of society,” chief functionary of Anyadesh Raja Faija Alam, who is also blind, told Deccan Herald.

In fact, Alam, who is a history teacher at Uluberia in Howrah district, attends the rehearsal every day after school. “Everybody attached to this group do some job. After the day’s work they atte­nd the theatre classes. It is a kind of recreation for them-- a ray of light, an expression of their own identity in their dark world of anonymity,” Alam added.

Mandira is fatherless. Her mother was worried about her performing in theatre. But Mandira’s blind colleagues reassured the mother. Now, Mandira performs all over the state.

“Initially, I was terrified that I would make a mess of things. Slowly, I am getting the hang of it. It feels wonderful to be told after a performance that I have done a good job,” she said.
Rinku Barman, 22, is another example of courage. Despite her blindness from the age of nine and the violent death of her mother, she continues with her artistic pursuit while taking care of her four younger siblings. “They create a lot of problems for me, even beat me up, but I am not going to give this up. Drama gives me my only freedom. It’s the only space where I can be happy. All I knew in the past was how to cry,” she said.

For these people, theatre is a therapy. It not only brought them out of their shells and gave them confidence to face the world but also it became an effective medium to vent their anger, frustration, love, pain and sorrow. Deep-rooted complexes often accompany blindness, especially among less educated. Through theatre, Anyadesh has helped them to neutralise their anger and frustration.

Anyadesh is also unique in many other ways. It focuses on the problems faced by visually-impaired people. Some performers sing to the beats of the tabla, play live along with flute and harmonium and the actors with their coordinated movements and effective dialogue delivery give the theatre a perfect shape. It is hard to belie­ve that drama is enacted by visually challen­ged people but only the ropes that are placed strategically around the stage to demarcate the boundaries give an indication.

“Most people, particularly girls, in the beginning, were very insecure, shy, scared, suspicious and depressed. Our first work was always to get rid of fears and win their trust. Confidence-building measures like personality development, speech therapy and physical exercises were conducted before acting classes ,” another functionary Subhash Das said.

Besides performing in most of the districts, Anyadesh has conducted theatre workshops for the physically challe­nged as well as marginal youth and children in many places in the state applying the principles of drama therapy.

They have produced plays like Jakhan Andha Prakriti Chandalika, Raktakarabi, Banglar Brata, Oedipus, Kaliyodaman and Jananir Desh. The last two plays are directed by Subhash Dey, the first visually challenged director in the country. “This year, we are organising a theatre festival for the blind from March 31 to April 2. This is first of its kind in the country,” Alam said.

When asked whether they have any expansion plan, Alam said: “We want to conduct workshops of this kind in all the major cities of the country but for that we need funds and help. If people come forward, then we can hope to do it in future”.

In a country that is supposed to have the highest rate of blindness in the world, a handful of people in a tiny, unknown, impoverished theatre group is setting an example that should prove to be a milestone in the history of Indian theatre.

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