Music

A step towards inclusivity

The performance by dancers from Articulate AbilityPhoto: Prince Frederick  

The last performance on the bill of fare, it was greeted with seats more vacant than occupied. The sprinkling of spectators were abashedly apologetic about it, and willed themselves t//o do every hallowed thing in their power to conceal this embarrassing fact from the Bharathanatyam dancers. The mission was accomplished with these spectators using their paws as cymbals and wowing the best formations and movements with extended claps — an effort that threatened to outlast Beatles’ memorable outre (“na na na nananana, nannana, hey Jude”, if you are casting around for it). That evening, each pair of hands in the room — including this writer’s — equalled a hundred.

One believes the five female Bharathanatyam dancers from Bengaluru-based Articulate Ability hardly registered that the auditorium was largely stark. They are vision-impaired, with partial sight, which was as reliable as a reed in a tempest, given the blindingly intense but essential lights thumping the stage at Dhakshinamurti Auditorium in Mylapore. If they had harboured any lingering suspicion that much of the audience had trooped out into the nippy winter night after the main events, the thunderous applause from the handful of spectators would have quelled it. The performance was part of Marghazhi Matram, an inclusive concert being organised by California-based arts-promoting non-profit, SciArtsRUs.

ALSO READ: California-based non-profit runs inclusive concert in Chennai for the Marghazhi season

After the last party of regular performers — a Carnatic troupe — had hurriedly shuffled off the stage, an elaborate preparation followed. Every possible stumbling block was swiftly shoved out of the way. Lengths of tapes were fastened on to the performance arena. These dancers feel their way through their performances, and these tapes were an indispensable guide. A vertical divider tape gave them a sense of the space around them, dividing the stage into two clean sections. A horizontally-pasted tape, one that went the length of the stage, kept them from overstepping the performance area and coming to any harm.

Despite these precautions, their guru Suparna Venkatesh, founder of Articulate Ability, did not want to leave anything to chance. She tutored the five girls about the dimensions of the stage, and any offending object found on the fringes, through instructions in Kannada.

As Suparna would reveal later, these girls are from remote villages of Karnataka, who found education through Deepa Academy for the Differently Abled in Bengaluru.

Suparna notes that the Academy also offers these vision-impaired students boarding and lodging at its hostel. In a collaborative exercise, Articulate Ability teaches these students bharathanatyam. Suparna is adept at Kathak and Bharathanatyam — while she takes the stage herself to perform Kathak, she helps others take the stage for Bharathanatyam performances.

As it was past 9 p.m., when they stepped on the stage, these dancers from Articulate Ability had to be content with a truncated performance, one involving just two pieces of music.

Mallari, which, as Suparna explained, is “a unique piece of music played on the nadaswaram when the presiding deity of a temple is taken on a procession”. The nadaswaram artistes play the music, accompanied by Tavil players. The other piece had the Articulate Ability dancers weaving movements that delineated an understanding of how the chakras are believed to work.

Whenever they pulled off an exacting formation, spectators would go into a tizzy of excited clapping.

While the performance was under way, Suparna’s response was priceless: leaning on the lectern, she would watch the dancers gimlet-eyed, particularly the movement of their feet, a smile constantly fleeting across her lips.

“It was so fulfilling to see them back on the stage after such a long time,” she would remark later, after the curtains had fallen on the day’s show. “Before the pandemic, they had performed in Bengaluru; some of them have even performed abroad.”

Due to the pandemic, for nearly two years, Suparna had not been able to go to their hostel to conduct classes for them. “We are hopeful of restarting the classes in January 2022,” she noted.

Before this concert at Marghazhi Matram, this team had to be put through a wringer of a practice session, which in the best of times can be a challenge.

“What would take one day of training for an ablebodied student would take these vision-impaired children seven days. I have to be patient — sometimes, they may miss out on a movement. Their memory of the movements has to be pretty sharp as they do not have the luxury of watching someone and copying a movement. As they take what they have learnt to the stage, they have to remember it clearly. To achieve that level of muscle memory, more practice sessions are needed. Even for rangapravesa, I use recorded music, as that makes it easy to conduct practice sessions. Musicians will not come for 10 or 15 practise sessions,” says Suparna.

She let in on a behind-the-scenes panic that had gripped the team at the eleventh hour. One of the six girls had received news of a bereavement in the family and rushed to Coorg. They movements and formations had been tailored to a six-member team. They had to adapt to the new situation, besides taking in their stride the regular challenges of a stage performance.

“As she had been in all the rehearsals, the other five had to adjust to her absence, reworking the formations in their mind.”

The actual performance on the stage has its own grammar, one that is as difficult to master as irregular verbs in French — for any artiste, and more so for one with impaired vision.

Besides its team of vision-impaired female dancers, Articulate Ability also has a group of five vision-impaired male dancers, two of whom are totally blind.

The dancers resort to alternatives offered by nature to crack this grammar.

“They are provided with guidelines (tapes) on the stage, but they find their way around with their other senses. When they are completely blind, the dancers feel the light on their skin. Two of these girls cannot even open their eyes when they come on to the stage with its blinding lights. So, they feel the harsh light on their skin and come to know where the audience are seated. They also feel the breath of the audience. And they also feel the sound waves from the speakers. Because everything is closed, they tend to feel these things clearly,” Suparna explains.

And the proof of the pudding: one rasika, K Kumar, a sabha-hopper during the Madhazhi season and a volunteer at Mardhazhi Matram, was struck by the impossibility of certain formations. He particularly referred to one sequence where the dancers sitting on their haunches had to snap back into the standing position and also achieve alignment as they did so.

He remarked, “It is only by the touch of the hand, the dancer realises that the one before her has stood up. It is amazing how they did it with perfect synchronicity. I will make a post about this incredibly brilliant performance on FB tomorrow.”

Another rasika tut-tutted over the empty seats, echoing the prevalent sentiment of the evening.

She was heard telling Suparna: “It is sad that there are not enough people in the audience to appreciate and marvel at this brilliant performance.” Thanks to the enthusiastic cheering, the five dancers would never know that.


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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 1:33:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/a-step-towards-inclusivity/article37845580.ece

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