In a first-of-its-kind attempt, Drama Association of the Deaf will be staging a play by the deaf. We meet the people behind the initiative

This Sunday, Phani Kumar, D.V.S. Sethu and Mohammad Abdul Ashwaq will be staging the play Sign Please for duration of 30 to 35 minutes. It’s hard to overlook their excitement. Phani explains to us, in sign language, that he’s watched a few plays in the past but felt they weren’t ‘inclusive’. By inclusive, he means both theatre and cinema don’t reach out to the deaf like him, Sethu and Ashwaq, making them understand the proceedings.

Films with subtitles don’t help either because the vocabulary, syntax and grammar followed by the hearing impaired are different from the regular usage. We’ll come to that later, but first, a look at how the play Sign Please came about.

Anju Khemani and Praveen Kumar were colleagues in Bangalore, working for the disabled at an NGO. Praveen is now a trainer with an MNC in Hyderabad and Phani and Sethu work in his team. A few months ago, they attended a play at Lamakaan and that got them thinking on staging a play by the deaf for the deaf. Their association, Drama Association of the Deaf (DAD), was born.

Anju explains why they are comfortable with ‘deaf’ over ‘hearing impaired’ (see box) and states as far as they gather, there has been no precedence of such a theatre initiative in the country.

Anju’s exposure to theatre goes back to her days at National School of Drama where she got to be part of workshops conducted by Barry John and Badal Sarkar. She feels the DAD format has elements of Badal Sarkar’s ‘third theatre’ where there is a storyline but no written screenplay.

Sign Please will have its actors using Indian Sign Language and American Sign Language and delving into issues that they, the deaf, are plagued with. “There’s going to be more sign language and less mime,” says Praveen.

The audience will be taught alphabets and a few basic signs before the play. There will be interpretation, without interrupting the flow of the play. “As the play progresses, people will be able to easily relate to it,” adds Praveen. Anju says, “The deaf are evolved enough to include others who don’t understand their language. They are good storytellers, are emotionally mature and enthusiastic about this creative space.”

Anyone who’s done theatre training will tell you the first step is to go through exercises that enable the participant shed inhibitions. Anju feels the three artistes are already in that stage, though they have no professional training.

“We are looking forward to evolve with each staging,” says Anju. DAD plans to take the play to other venues in the city to create awareness and encourage participation from other deaf people. “Hopefully, we will also be able to look at other storylines; perhaps a romance or a murder mystery,” says Praveen.

‘The deaf people’ vs. ‘hearing impaired’

The first thought that crossed our minds when we heard of DAD was the usage of ‘deaf’ as opposed to the politically correct ‘hearing impaired’.

Anju reasons: “Impairment defines that there are degrees of defects. The words ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ are fine as long as you use person eg. ‘blind people’ or ‘deaf people’. I am not sure if other would agree, but from what I’ve read, ‘deaf’ is a culture. It’s just like we wouldn’t object to being called a Malayali or a Bengali unless it is not said in the right context.”

The signs

Just as we have languages, dialects and syntax, the deaf have theirs too.

The Indian Sign Language is different from that of American, British or French Sign Languages.

“A deaf person can easily tell which region of the country another deaf person hails from, going by his/her sign language,” says Praveen.

He also notes that when deaf people write, it may be grammatically incorrect. “They transcribe the way they use sign language,” he says.

Anju explains, “In most cases verbs go missing, since the verbs are expressed through actions.”