Odissi exponent Alpana Nayak on teaching children with disabilities.
“We are very excited, because till now we didn't have a place of our own,” says Alpana Nayak, Odissi dancer and founder of a non-governmental organisation called Association for Learning Performing Arts and Normative Action — whose acronym fits neatly as ALPANA. She is talking about the vocational training centre that opened on June 1 at the Basti Vikas Kendra, Kalyanpuri, in East Delhi. Here Alpana plans to make skill training in carry bag and candle making, clay modelling and appliqué work, besides music and dance, available to people with special needs. Alpana, known for teaching Odissi and group dance to special children, came into this field on an incidental note in 2003.
“When I first started teaching Odissi, I didn't know anything about children with special needs. We lived in Chandra Nagar, Ghaziabad, and I had started classes in our flat. One of our neighbours came and asked me if I would teach her son. She told me he was a special child, but I would not have known it if she hadn't told me. He picked up the dance very well. I began teaching him in August 2003 and by March 2004 I had taught him two or three dances.”
This young boy, Tanmay, was then 11 and is still training with Alpana. “People suggested there were many such children in the school Tanmay attended whom I could teach,” relates Alpana. She went to see the principal who discouraged her from the experiment, though on her insistence, told her, “You may try, but you will probably give up after two weeks like everyone else.”
Alpana, contrary to the principal's expectations, realised she had a flair for working with the children. “Initially I found it difficult but then I realised I could do it.” She applied an interesting bit of experience she had gathered earlier to her new situation. “I had done a course in London about how to teach Hindi through dance. The course helped me learn how to teach students who were completely alien to the subject.”
Alpana also decided to equip herself further by pursuing a B.Ed degree. “And in my special paper I took Psychology,” she says. Alpana remained with the school, Educatum, in Chandra Nagar, till 2009. In 2006, she had another educational experience when she visited Japan on a tour sponsored by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. “There I found how differently they handle special kids. In India I have even seen that in schools they make them sit on a chair and tie them to it.” Alpana says she opposed this approach but would be told, “You don't know, these kids can become aggressive.”
In Japan she found her convictions affirmed. “In Japan my eyes were opened,” she says. Analysing her own initial success without specialised training, she notes, “I feel what helped me was patience and love. It is amazing how far you can go by giving a little pat on the back. But if you try to be strict, they react with stubbornness.”
She applies the principles of order inherent in the traditional arts to her teaching. “In classical dance you learn a lot of discipline. I would teach them postures and yoga asanas and meditation. I would teach them mudras, etc. I found this to be very calming.” Within a year of joining the school, she says, “children who could not even stand in a line performed mangalacharan.”
Alpana, who besides teaching mentally challenged children, currently also has students with physical disabilities and hearing and speech impairment, conducts fully integrated classes in which children without disabilities too learn. She says she does not compromise on the standard of nritta though she accepts a learner's limitations. Some are very good at rhythm and fast too but eye coordination is not so good. A student may be excellent at postures but not at abhinaya. For some she may reduce the speed. Seven of her special students are specialising in classical dance and a few have already passed exams administered by the Gandharva Mahavidyalya Mandal.
Along with Saswati Chatterjee for music and Alka Agarwal and Poonam Gupta for visual arts, she has some 100-odd students. Every year the NGO presents an annual day programme in the Capital. “We give a prize for the best dancer in each item,” she recounts. This year, one of the special children cried at not receiving a prize, and all the children in her group too cried. “It was a big lesson for me,” says Alpana frankly. She has decided in future not to make the event competitive. She also points out that while some people suggest she should segregate her students according to ability, this experience confirmed her decision never to segregate them. Such suggestions come from those who don't credit special children with sensitivity, she feels, saying segregating the classes would further undermine their confidence.