Unbound energy on wheels
The evening of November 10 at the Rabindra Mandap was a spectacle for many. A group of 15 wheelchair-bound youngsters performed Bharatnatyam, Thang-ta(sword fight) and Yoga, leaving the audience spell-bound.
They are members of New Delhi-based Ability Unlimited, India’s first dance-theatre troupe for the disabled, a place where they literally learn to stand on their own feet.
Abilities Unlimited, having as many as 150 challenged artistes, is the brainchild of art therapist-cum-classical dance trainer Guru Syed Salauddin Pasha. Artistes in his group suffer from varying conditions such as polio, dyslexia, cerebral palsy and even autism. Pasha says his decision to heal the disabled through therapeutic theatre came 15 years ago when he saw a celebral palsy child chained to stop him from ruining a party. Since then, he has travelled around the world to perform at various places along with his troupe, including the House of Commons in London. Ability Unlimited has staged over 100 productions across the world so far.
“At Ability Unlimited Foundation, we work with the motive to change the perception of people towards the challenged. People today don’t think beyond their clothes and gadgets. It is a small effort from our side to change this notion and dedicate our efforts to the betterment of the disabled,” says Pasha, who has induced hope and gaiety in hundreds of differently-abled children with his concept called ‘Dance on Wheels and Crutches’.
“Just like Lord Krishna, my guruji has been an inspiration for me. I feel like Arjun,” says Manoj Baraik, member, Ability Unlimited. Manoj Baraik is a warrior in his own right. Like seven crore people in India, Manoj was born with a disability, with a wheelchair binding his life but not his spirit. This 19-year-old found his true calling with Abilities Unlimited. “When we are on stage, the reaction from the audience shows that they love our performance,” he says.
“These dance performances give a great message to the society. When people see them perform such magnificent acts, they forget that they are disabled,” says Pasha. He says he has been working with the challenged since childhood, when he was the ‘entertainer and babysitter’ for his grandfather’s queues of disabled patients in his native village of Anekal, Karnataka. “Using movements and mudras, I would heal them,” he recalls. His grandfather was amazed at his inborn talent for dance therapy that gave the patients ‘courage and happiness and movement’ independent of the medication.
Pasha learnt dance from age six - Bharatanatyam from late Guru Kittappa Pillai, his disciple Guru Narmada and Padmini Rao, and Kathak under Guru Maya Rao. Born into a Muslim family, he was uncannily inclined towards Sanskrit shlokas and the philosophy behind the dance forms. “Some people just have an inclination. I think it was samskars from an earlier birth,” he muses. Initially, he says, his family had no objections to his learning dance. “But when it became serious they did.”
Expression in dance becomes steadily more internalised as you advance, he points out. “You have to lose yourself on stage.”
For each of the 150 artistes on board, Abilities Unlimited has been about fighting back and about overcoming personal inhibitions and societal bias. These extraordinarily talented people feel more confident and in consequence become more outgoing.
“I had no belief in myself earlier,” says Gulshan, a member of the Abilities Unlimited. As for their Guruji, he can only be too proud of them. “I feel even if I die, I will be in peace,” says Pasha.
The dance trainer and his team have put together brilliant productions like ‘Bharatanatyam on Wheels’, ‘Yoga on Wheels’, ‘Bhagavad Gita’, ‘Ramayana on Wheels’, ‘Durga’, ‘Freedom on Wheels’ and others.