Tryst with ability

Imagination on wheels Syed Sallauddin Pasha with artists of Ability Unlimited at Bharat Bhavan; Pasha training his disciples; Rani Khanam helping backstage   | Photo Credit: PHOTOS: A.M. Faruqui, (others) courtesy Ability Un

Sallauddin Pasha outlines his journey of art and healing to ANJANA RAJAN

We often say, the disabled are those who feel a vacuum in their lives.

World Disability Day is just over, but Syed Sallauddin Pasha — or ‘Guruji Pasha' as he is known to his adoring disciples — is still celebrating. And the International Day for Persons with Disabilities is certainly a festival, he reiterates.

“We celebrate it like all other festivals. It is a day the disabled look forward to all year,” says Pasha, founder and creative director of Ability Unlimited, the spectacular performing arts troupe comprising people with varying disabilities, ranging from the hearing impaired to the wheelchair bound and the mentally challenged. “Very few people really care for them,” he says with the compassion of a parent.

Double occasion

This Thursday the troupe performed in Bhopal's Bharat Bhavan. The occasion was doubly significant, notes Pasha. Not only was it Disability Day, it was the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Pasha says, “It is an opportunity for us to tell people not to give up hope. It is important to set an example for the able-bodied people. We often say, jis ki zindagi mein kamiyaan mehsoos hoti hain, woh disabled hain. (The disabled are those who feel a vacuum in their lives.)”

If celebration is about song and dance, though, at Ability Unlimited it is festival time all year round. “I must say our shows are doing really well,” says Pasha. “We recently performed for 1000 principals as part of a schools' initiative, and after that every school is calling us to perform!”

Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Jaipur, Bhopal, Bangalore, not to mention cities of the world — the itinerary keeps growing. “The awareness is spreading,” notes Pasha, adding, “When people walk out at the end of the show, it leaves such a deep impact.”

The hub of activities is Ability Unlimited's creative headquarters in East Delhi, where Pasha and his team of 200-odd disciples put together brilliant productions like “Bharatanatyam on Wheels”, “Yoga on Wheels”, “Bhagavad Gita”, “Ramayana on Wheels”, “Durga”, “Freedom on Wheels” and others.

A minimum of 18 to 20 artistes tour with each production. “We rotate them, because we have to give them all a chance to gain experience,” explains Pasha. Splendid shows give the impression that he culls only the best from the lot, but Pasha says he takes this approach to every field, ensuring equitable participation by allocating different responsibilities according to aptitude. The troupe certainly seems better managed than many other Indian dance companies. Members under his guidance have specialised in costume and jewellery design, lighting, art administration and other aspects. “Recently we have branched into filmmaking and photography too,” explains Pasha, adding that this is the “overall creative aspect of art,” not as a decorative but as a therapeutic medium.

Childhood passion

Pasha says he has been working with the disabled since childhood, when he was the “entertainer and babysitter” for his grandfather's queues of disabled patients in his native village of Anekal, Karnataka. “Using movements and mudras, I would heal them,” he recalls. His grandfather was amazed at his inborn talent for dance therapy that gave the patients “courage and happiness and movement” independently of the medication.

Pasha learnt dance from age six —Bharatanatyam from late Guru Kittappa Pillai, his disciple Guru Narmada and Padmini Rao, and Kathak under Guru Maya Rao. Born into a Muslim family, he was uncannily inclined towards Sanskrit shlokas and the philosophy behind the dance forms. “Some people just have an inclination. I think it was samskars from an earlier birth,” he muses. Initially, he says, his family had no objections to his learning dance. “But when it became serious they did.”

Expression in dance becomes steadily more internalised as you advance, he points out. “You have to lose yourself on stage.” As the press hailed the “Muslim boy” performing a “Hindu art” — though he did not see it like that — his family became increasingly uncomfortable, but with public adulation came familial acceptance. Today, notes Pasha, “We have artistes from all religions.”

What started as in-house productions featuring his grandfather's patients, performed before friends and neighbours, became a serious calling when Pasha realised he had to bring this awareness to society at large. Today, with ample experience in creative arts for the disabled across the world, he has been special pedagogic dance theatre director at special schools in Finland and is visiting professor to national and international universities.

“The other day we performed in Bangalore and my guru Maya Rao had come to see us. She said, ‘You have grown beyond my imagination',” relates Pasha warmly.

But when imagination takes wheels, surprise melts into still greater expectations.



Sallauddin Pasha on facilities for disabled performers

“There are no disabled-friendly theatres. But we have learnt to manage. We have an entire technical team, and our carpenters construct ramps a day before. We travel with about 20 wheelchairs, 25 boxes and a big group — it is like a jaatra on the move. We book an entire bogey. Though Indian Railways have a disabled van, it is so dirty our artistes can't use it. We don't want them to fall sick.”


Rani Khanam (Member of governing body of

Ability Unlimited)

“I had never worked with the disabled in such a specialised way before I met Pashaji. I liked his work. It was a new way to approach and present art. I was already a performing artiste, and our approach is never entertainment-oriented. It is all about aesthetics. But when you do community-based art, it aims to entertain as well. Besides, it is not just teaching, it is curing too and is being done for the sake of an entire community. I have been assisting them as an artiste, a coordinator, backstage. There is no one demarcated area. Of course he is my husband and I am there for him, as he is there for me. I am very happy to work with him at Ability Unlimited. It is a sukhad ehsas(blissful feeling) that can't be described.”