Differently-abled artistes of Ability Unlimited Foundation put on a spectacular display of skill at the finale of this year’s Soorya fete in Thiruvananthapuram.

“Differently-abled” is how guru Syed Sallaudin Pasha describes the special artistes who make up the troupe of dancers in his organisation, Ability Unlimited Foundation. This voluntary organisation is devoted to the cause of the physically-challenged and projects itself to be India’s first professional dance theatre for such persons. Watching the troupe perform at the finale of the Soorya Festival in Thiruvananthapuram was akin to witnessing a celebration of their indomitable spirit and exploration of the unlimited potential in every human being.

The credit of giving wings to the wheelchairs goes to founder–choreographer guru Pasha and his concept of therapeutic theatre that uses art as a vehicle to transform and heal society. “What persons with disabilities lack is not talent, but the opportunities and circumstances to expose the talents with which they are abundantly endowed with,” says Pasha.

The opening number of the show, the ‘Sufi dance’, proved the point without doubt. Clad in the attire of Dervishes, white skirts flowing over their wheelchairs, the artistes began, spinning and swaying to the music, building up the crescendo to dance to the evocative number ‘Khwaja mere khwaja’. The mood created was ethereal. To choreograph this unusual number, Pasha says he travelled to Istanbul, Turkey, and talked to Dervishes for their input. The next item, ‘Bharathanatyam on Wheelchairs’, the troupe’s award-winning and popular item, was presented as a jugalbandhi with female artistes dancing on their feet and the men on wheelchairs. If the performance on wheelchairs left the audience spellbound, a bigger surprise awaited them at the end of this number – all of the women artistes were hearing-impaired! All of them danced in perfect rhythm and synchronisation without the ability to listen to a single note of the accompanying music or the beat of the percussion! ‘Yoga- Jathi’, incorporating asanas of Yoga and jathis of Bharathanatyam, was another innovative item.

The piece de resistance was the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, presented by the entire group. Significant slokas from the Gita, set to evocative music, formed the background to depict the scenario of events that take place on the Kurukshetra battlefield, leading to the Gitopadesham of Krishna to Arjuna. While the wheelchair metamorphosised into the chariot, crutches took on hues of bows and arrows, the disc and the mace. Fast and frenzied movements by the actors on wheelchairs suggested the cacophony of war, and dance patterns by the women created the effects where necessary. It was a hair-raising moment when Krishna revealed his universal form to Arjuna – the Viswaroopa darshanam. Presented along with a depiction of the 10 avatars of the Lord in an enthralling group formation, this visual treat had Krishna in the centre, crutches held high in his arms in a gesture denoting His limitlessness. On a higher plane, Krishna’s advice is to unleash one’s inner strengths and so this number had special relevance to the actors and the audience as well. As Pasha says: “Disability is a state of mind” and to him the performance talks about dignity and equality. Hailed as the ‘Father of Indian Therapeutic Theatre for Persons with Disabilities’, he is a recipient of the national award from the President of India for ‘Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities’ and has found place in the Limca Book of World Records for creating 100 dance theatre productions and 10,000 performances by persons with disabilities all over the world.

At the show, Pasha engaged the audience and sought their involvement by talking to them about the production and encouraging them to applaud the performers with hand gestures that the hearing impaired could recognise and rejoice in. The performers were Priya Kumar, Karuna Sagar, Jyoti Dingra, Alka Shah, Ashiq Usman, Harbir Singh, Manish, Prajapathi, Vijay Kumar and Gulshan Kumar. The 10 essential qualities of a dancer as enumerated in the AbhinayaDarpana are ‘Javaha’ (agility), ‘Sthirathvam’ (steadiness), ‘Rekha’ (graceful lines), ‘Bhramari’ (balance in pirouettes), ‘Drishti’ (glance), ‘Shrama’ (hard work), ‘Medha’ (intelligence), ‘Shraddha’ (dedication), ‘Vacha’ (good speech), and ‘Geetam’ (singing ability). The last two have almost become redundant in the modern system of stage performances. One could agree that against this accepted benchmark, each one of these artistes would qualify for a full score - underscoring that their abilities are unlimited indeed!