A freewheeling performance
A group of physically-challenged boys and girls stuns audience with flawless dances on wheelchairs
While introducing an experimental dance production that fuses bharatanatyam and yoga, Syed Salahuddin Pasha pauses to look to his left and right. With a knitted brow and eyes that have turned into tiny slits, he appears to be watching out for intruders. “I do this as a matter of routine. My dancers are self-reliant, and don't take kindly to people helping them on to the stage,” he tells his bewildered audience, and in the next instant, Pasha's performers enter on wheelchairs.
All through the programme — “Bharatanatyam and Sufi Dance on Wheels” at Chinmaya Heritage Hall — Pasha reminds his audience that these performers resent being pitied upon. During another interlude, he says: “Judge them by the standards that are applied to able-bodied dancers of the same stripe, and you will see they have merit.” A little later, he belabours the point: “As dancers, they are second to none.”
His dancers don't let him down — they prove wheels can replace legs. Each of the moves they make was first perfected by Pasha. For 15 years, he spent around six hours daily on wheelchairs, to understand the dynamics of performing these dances.
Idioms of dance
The merit of Ability Unlimited Foundation (Delhi) — as Pasha's group is known — lies in the fact that the dancers master these traditional forms, but also go beyond them and create new idioms of dance. This fact comes to the fore in Yogajathi where they work yogic postures — including advanced ones — into bharatanatyam moves. Pasha, who hails from a medical family that ministered to the kings of Mysore, explains his dance productions are designed to heal mind and body, and that aesthetics is a by-product.
‘Tillana' is another innovative production, where hearing-impaired girls team up with boys on wheelchairs. The girls are also trained in the nuances of wheelchair dancing. Before the performance, Pasha says: “These girls can't hear a whisper, and how are you going to applaud?” In response, the audience raise and waggle their hands. Hands stick up frequently during the performance.
As a preview of the next day's performance, devoted to Sufi-based productions, the dancers present two pieces. Covered in flowing and billowing white clothes, they spin in perfect synchrony to two songs, one by A.R. Rahman. One of the boys — Gulshan Kumar — holds the record for the most number of spins on a wheelchair (63 in a minute).
The reward for the incredible two-hour performance follows — an accomplished senior dancer tells Pasha: “I looked for flaws in their performance, but found none.”