Ambika Kameshwar uses dance and music to bring joy to the lives of differently-abled children.

“Take dance, I'm not giving you a choice,” said the teacher in Modern School, Delhi, when the child wondered if she should opt for painting instead. That is how she began to enjoy free-style exploration of movements, a foundation for her future mission. She had natural grace, as also training in music from mother Sulochana.

“Thank God for giving me the right direction early in life,” says Ambika Kameshwar, Bharatanatyam artiste, best known for her extraordinary work through theatre for holistic education for mentally-disadvantaged children. Hands-on experience over 25 years has enabled her to shape this unique programme and methodology.

Her father's transferable job in the Income Tax department next placed the family in Bangalore, where Ambika began Bharatanatyam lessons with Kumari Minakshi, who very soon had her girl perform in solo and ensemble presentations across Karnataka.

Says Ambika with insouciant vigour: “Dancing energised me to excel in studies.”

With parents devoted to Ramana Maharishi, young Ambika agreed to help produce the annual day show at the Ramana Academy for the Visually Impaired. “My first exposure to special needs. Participants felt my mudras, limbs, and tried to reproduce my movements,” Ambika remembers. “At 18, I was ambitious. But at the show, my heart stopped when I saw a young girl performing a running movement, which could topple her off the stage. She ended right at the edge, in perfect synchronisation with the rhythm.”

Bonding with children

Without formal training, Ambika continued to teach and bond with children in that school, while also continuing to hone herself as a dancer, and pursue the academic path. “No conflict! Each journey facilitated others.”

Marriage to computer engineer and writer Gowrishankar Kameshwar brought her to Madras. “But for his unfailing encouragement, I couldn't have graduated and continued with Ph.D (Natyasastra: The Art of Communication in Indian Theatre) and post-doctoral research (Theatre Arts for Holistic Development).”

Working as a volunteer in the Spastics' Society of India (1985), Chennai, was her first experience with mentally-challenged children. Two years in Europe had her observing methods in special schools, sighing over their fantastic facilities, and taking a course in educating the “Developmentally Young”.

Ambika's habit of meticulously recording her work was to be a boon when she launched her own school RASA (Ramana Sunritya Aalaya) in Chennai (1989), now with 100 children, 30 teachers and 10 volunteers in three branches.

Shaping a workable methodology demanded patience and passion. Since mental challenges also cause some physical disabilities, individualised assistance alone can improve motor co-ordination, cognitive development, language, communication and social skills. Music, dance, acting and story-telling activities are devised to achieve these goals.

“Parents avoid exposure to new situations. So, we bring those situations to the classroom — enact trips to weddings, restaurants, or the beach, and let the child understand how to handle freedom and discipline in the new setting. After all, if we know entries, exits, co-actors, and lines, we know life!” she laughs.

It was a conscious decision not to accept fees — Ambika fears it might create distinctions between the privileged and underprivileged. With costs at Rs. 2,000 per month a child, fund-raising remains the perennial problem. “I always carry a begging bowl!” RASA stages three fundraising shows every year.

Friends pitch in with collective effort. Ambika sees good vibrations in money coming from different sources. Once, a man came up to the teacher, in charge of the children at Nageshwara Rao Park, gave Rs. 5 and said, ‘This is all I can afford. Please take it.' Ambika explains, “For 20 years, we have managed, or rather God has managed for us.” Ambika herself continues to perform her own dance recitals, and runs a dance school as well, declaring: “I must maintain high standards to be able to use my art for developmental work.”

Claiming hundreds of children as her own, what joy to have her biological daughter opting to work with her in her life's mission! Her husband remains her best friend. Ambika has also discovered that loving special children for what they are has brought her an unlooked-for reward: overwhelming love from every one of them. She beams with pride: “Can anyone be more fortunate?”

Showtime:

Ramana Sunritya Aalaya, providing free services to the cause of rehabilitating children with different disabilities through a structured application of the Indian performing art traditions, stages a fund-raising art show on 20 March 20 at Narada Gana Sabha. The show features both music and dance.

Orchestral music by Comagan & Troupe (of “Autograph” Fame), and vocals by young talent Shreya, Poorna and Mihir, will be followed by dance performances by Ambika Kameshwar and Anita Guha, Madurai Muralidharan and Radhika Shurajit, Anusha and Narendra, and the Kathak duo Pooja and Prarthana. K.S. Raghunathan (HMV) and musician composer Rajkumar Bharati felicitate legendary film music directors M.S. Viswanathan and Ramamurthy.

RASA, now 20 years old, hopes to raise donations for its sustained work of empowering challenged children through this panoramic show. Contact: 2499 7607, 6528 1970 or 99401-28852 for details.