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Ability Unlimited

By Neeta Lal

Their wheelchairs spinning faster than a kathak dancer, the artistes of the unique Ability Unlimited dance troupe hold audiences spellbound all over the world. Through dance, members of this 150-strong troupe of mentally/physically challenged people find a voice in a not very inclusive society

Therapeutic Theatre

There's much hullabaloo in the office of Ability Unlimited, a professional dance company located in the inner lanes of Patparganj, east Delhi. Cardboard cartons pepper the office space even as gossamer dance costumes, assorted face masks, music cassettes, CDs and sundry paraphernalia add to the melee. A few young people are orchestrating some packing. "Arre bhai yeh us carton me daalo," gestures one emphatically to the other. Meanwhile, a few youngsters pore solemnly over a sheaf of passports for the group's departure to San Francisco in a couple of days. "Have the wheelchairs been taken care of," asks a volunteer.

Wheelchairs?! I do a doubletake as I'm told that each member of this amazingly talented troupe is either physically or mentally challenged! "We have the entire spectrum of disabilities in our group," smiles Guru Salauddin Pasha, a disabled rights activist, choreographer and professional dancer who founded Ability Unlimited (AU) in 1999. "There are physically, mentally, visually challenged artistes, plus the hearing impaired, autistic/dyslexic ones, those with cerebral palsy, and some with both mental and physical challenges."

With a bank of over 150 performers -- ranging in age from 27 years to five-year-old Zubair who has no limbs -- the group has given over 100 spellbinding theatre performances across India and around the world, in the past eight years. The group's wide repertoire -- which draws upon the rich groundswell of traditional Indian folklore and mythology -- includes Martial Arts on Wheels, Ramayana on Wheels, Durga, Bhagawad Gita and The Panchatantra Tales, among others.

Deeply moving and beautifully executed, UA's dance productions -- a far cry from staple Bollywood fare -- are engrossing. The Ramayana, for instance, with its 24,000 verses, is the troupe's favourite theme and recounts the story of love, loyalty, heroic renunciation, fierce battles, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil by persons with disability on crutches and in wheelchairs, the first of its kind in the history of dance theatre worldwide. Unsurprisingly, this production has won the troupe a number of international and national awards.

Indeed, the performances of these disabled artistes have to be seen to be believed. The troupe's recent 90-minute performance at Delhi's Kamani Auditorium on July 3, for instance, left audiences spellbound. The artistes portrayed the most challenging scenes in a captivating dance theatre performance. "The spinning speed of my troupe's wheelchairs is faster than an accomplished Kathak dancer's spins," reiterates Pasha. This summer, the troupe is off to the US, Canada and the West Indies; last year they showcased their talent at the House of Commons, in the British Parliament.

As the world's first, and only, professional dance theatre exclusively employing disabled people and also run by them, AU trains its members using innovative choreographic techniques and therapeutic methods. "Dance for the disabled is like a medicine without side-effects," says Pasha. "Moving to music is therapeutic for the body and uplifting for the spirit. Movement set in choreography -- and performed publicly -- challenges an artiste's physical, mental and emotional strength."

AU artistes, trained stringently in the techniques of Natya Shiksha theatre, are also proficient in voice modulation, speech therapy and special choreographic movements. After training -- which may take anything from a few months to over a year, depending on the person's level of disability -- a member gets absorbed into the troupe. Each of AU's productions is researched, conceived, directed and choreographed using ancient Indian traditional techniques with therapeutic music and movements.

"Our novel learning and performing experience elevates, enables and empowers these specially disadvantaged young people with the ability to go through life with dignity," says Pasha who has directed Europe's biggest therapeutic theatre project Ramayana on Wheels with Finnish children and adults. The multi-faceted choreographer, an erstwhile scholar at Cornell University, New York, Sutra Dance Theatre, Malaysia, and Dance Theatre Raatikko, Finland, has also orchestrated Durga and Martial Arts on Wheels with 200 differently-abled children and adults.

AU classes include contact improvisation, creative dance techniques, choreography, and performance skills. The organisation's outreach programme impacts 120,000 disabled people across India. In fact, AU was the first Indian outfit to conduct therapeutic workshops for tsunami victims (Andaman, Nicobari, Katchal and Ranchi tribes) in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with support from UNESCO. This helped tsunami victims overcome their stress, fears and insecurities. "Theatre is an all-encompassing, universal vehicle for creative vision," says Pasha. "Apart from entertainment, it is also a medium of therapy, empowerment and enrichment."

Interestingly, training to AU artistes is imparted by physically challenged teachers so that the nuances of a particular handicap can be factored into the training. Everything, from lighting to costume designing to stage setting is managed by these special people.

AU also regularly invites well-known dance gurus, choreographers, light designers, music composers, painters and costume designers to conduct classes at its workshops. "This gives students an opportunity to become professional artists, choreographers and directors," says Hemlata Meena, a polio-affected student of Delhi University and an AU artiste who has essayed the role of Sita and Durga in the troupe's productions. Gulshan Kumar, 12, another polio victim, adds: "Dance has given me a new lease of life."

AU believes in using the arts as a vehicle to broaden thinking and resolve issues of inclusion confronting the disabled. "We're committed to changing the apathy and negativity that surrounds the education, employment and inclusion of disabled persons into a positive, dynamic force by providing each of them equal access to the therapeutic values of theatre," explains Pasha.

Most artistes at AU believe that India is not the most disabled-friendly nation despite the fact that it has a staggering 70 million disabled people, more than the combined population of Great Britain. "I call our handicapped the 'silent minority' simply because they have such little visibility in public spaces. There's no infrastructure for the disabled, very few jobs, and even fewer educational avenues. The disabled live in choked desolation not because they are incapable of leading a dignified, productive life but because we don't care enough," says Pasha.

To sustain itself, AU also offers dance theatre classes, choreography classes, summer dance workshops, theatre arts camps, teacher training workshops, and specialised classes in Delhi as well as lectures/performances, workshops, residencies and stage performances across India. It conducts regular training programmes through the year for disabled students of all ages. Says a trainer: "Our focus is on the exploration of an individual's dance vocabulary while shoring up his confidence."

AU, says Pasha, is open to collaborations in dance therapy with various dance, movement and art therapists, institutions and universities. Its Delhi centre also acts as a referral point for Asian dance, drama, music and yoga therapy. In addition, the outfit also conducts 'motivational' performances for the corporate sector. "Our performances motivate employees to dream big and work hard to make organisational dreams come true. Most companies have a reservoir of potential and talent but they are unaware of their own abilities. Seeing disabled artistes perform so well motivates employees to make optimum use of their potential and capabilities," says a volunteer coordinator.

The group's larger aim is to augment the visibility of disabled people's potential. "All we want is dignity for the disabled and their active participation in a more inclusive society." Towards this end, Pasha and his magical troupe work tirelessly to serve up an engaging cocktail of dance, drama, music and the arts. "These artists," Pasha concludes, "don't need mercy, they need opportunity."

(Neeta Lal is an independent journalist based in Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2007