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Animated Edition - Autumn 2012
Visually impaired dancers in Bangalore
Teacher and choreograher Dr Suparna Venkatesh talks to Dr Sunil Kothari about her work with Articulate Ability, an organisation supporting differently abled dancers

Associated Attachment(s):

 Suparna Venkatesh.pdf
Visually challenged dancers: do not look at our disability, look at our ability
Dr Sunil Kothari (SK): What inspired you to undertake this project of working in this context?

Dr Suparna Venkatesh (SV): I used to watch the street entertainers, their agility, skill, and acrobatic movements. My own attempt to work with visually impaired people made me appreciate the fact that performing arts need not be the prerogative of those who study under strict dictums of a guru. By the time I completed my formal training in the complex classical dance of Bharatanatyam and Kathak, I decided to work on this project. My association with a fellow dance artist who taught at a school for the visually impaired and from whose adventure blossomed a small band of visually impaired dancers, convinced me that I had to do something more than sympathising or appreciating my friend's work. My colleague and artist Mysore B Nagaraj asked me if I would teach further the group of five blind people in Bharatanatyam. What others express through their eyes, the five boys emoted with their enthusiasm and that inspired me to take up teaching these dancers in this complex style of dance.

SK: How long you have been teaching?

SV: It is now a little more than half a decade since I started teaching the dancers. Starting with five young men, now the group has grown including 13 young girls, all visually impaired, who are students at Deepa Academy for the differently-abled, in Bangalore.

SK: What methodology are you employing?

SV: When nature takes away one of the five senses of comprehension, the other faculties become fine-tuned. Among the blind, the sense of hearing and touch are heightened. Without any methodology of teaching the existing movements of dance, it was the blind dancers themselves who evolved a method that allowed them to understand the nuances of classical dance. The way the Braille was read by the sense of touch, the dancers asked me to do the basic movements, while they grasped my arms, wrists, limbs and experienced the flow of body in the frame of space to given time. From simple movements to complex rhythm patterns the dancers were trained in this method of tactile perception. In fact I do not claim to have taught them, the truth is, they learnt it by themselves through me, I was only an instrument.

SK: How do you feel about their confidence?

SV: A blind person can depend on their white cane for mobility. Imagine when the dancers threw away this essential support, in the darkness of vision they moved across the space without any fear of falling, to the beats of the percussion and strains of melody, they have exhibited the highest level of confidence, not only in us but within themselves. In fact when I compare my students with other blind people, including the ones in associated art fields, the level of confidence that dance has instilled in them is just amazing.

SK: Do people watch them with sympathy and pity here in India?

SV: I would like to categorise people I have encountered in our audiences as follows: _ The guilty: People have expressed that they cannot watch blind people dance, because they feel that they are punishing or exploiting their condition and hence feel guilty about it. So they avoid it.

  • The curious: Some spectators just watch for the novelty of things. Though appreciative of the efforts, for them it is only a casual passing glimpse, not serious entertainment.
  • The doubting Thomas: At first they would not believe that the dance they just witnessed was performed by the blind. They double check, triple check if the dancers are really blind, and they leave the auditorium in the same state of disbelief. This demonstrates the capability of the blind artists.
  • The sympathisers: Some among the audience accept the dance talent out of sympathy of their situation. Sense of pity arises in them similar to when a beggar comes along and they spare few coins out of pity. True appreciation of the efforts seems to be lacking. Sometimes the sympathy extends to us, for having taken the trouble of teaching disabled people.
  • The appreciators: True connoisseurs of dance art are truly amazed by the accomplishment of visually impaired dancers. What essentially is a visual art, it is being perfectly presented by dancers with impaired vision. The spectator who has the sensibilities of understanding the nuances of a complex classical dance art is left bewildered with the capacity of comprehension of these blind achievers.
  • The motivated and inspired: Many youngsters have been motivated by their performances and their ability to move without fear. The grasp of music and movement has had immense moral effect on them. In fact the young viewers reflect and develop their own approach towards the reality and harshness of life. The stories of the blind and their accomplishment have left the young spectator wondering why they complain even amidst plenty. Many have resolved and many have turned a new leaf in their young life. They have been motivated to achieve something in their life.

SK: How do these artists empower themselves?

SV: The disabled artists themselves feel empowered in more than one way. A sense of accomplishment gives them a feeling that they too can do what some even dare not to do. A sense of achievement leaves them with the euphoria of doing something which the society considers impossible. A sense of worthiness, by making a living out of the art that leaves them with a feeling that they too can be independent and financially secure. A sense of independence is experienced by them, without being a burden to their family or society.

SK: Do these artists perform professionally? If so, where do they perform? SV: Yes, these visually impaired dancers are professional dancers. They give dance performances at prestigious venues and festivals in India and abroad:
  • at corporate events to make a living
  • at schools, colleges and exclusive gatherings motivating them with their capabilities against odds
  • in rehabilitation centers, hospices for the terminally ill and for in high security prisons
  • They perform for fundraising concerts and the money thus collected goes to fund projects in under developed countries
  • They perform in inclusive dance productions and dance features
  • They have travelled across the globe to several countries in North America, Europe, Middle East, Asia and Far East.
SK: Besides your group are there other professional groups in India? SV: I would say with pride, that this group is the only professional classical dance company amongst the blind and visually impaired. I support the development of, teach, train and promote the dancers under the banner of Articulate Ability, a not for profit organisation. All I seek from society is an opportunity for these gifted and talented artists to express their mission: 'Do not look at our disability, look at our ability'.

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Animated: Autumn 2012