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A school in West Bengal makes life brighter for the visually impaired, as renowned dancer Keya Chanda teaches children with disabilities to dance.
By Dr. Rina Mukherji
The disabled, or, as the new nomenclature goes, the specially-abled, are nearly invisible to our planners and administrators. True, there is a 3 per cent reserved quota for persons with disabilities in government jobs, but private companies are under no obligation to employ them.
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Although the Disabilities Act was passed in 1995, the office of the Commissioner for Disabilities remained vacant for several years until activists forced the government to appoint someone to it. Ten years after it was passed, a study by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) showed that hardly any statistics had been compiled on the employment status of persons with disabilities in India.
The bigger problem, of course, is providing the specially-abled with skills and training that can make them employable, or at least, let them earn their livelihood. Few care to send children with disabilities to schools, since being disabled is looked upon as a stigma for the family.
It is even more so for a handicapped female. A survey by the Association for Women With Disabilities (AWWD) conducted in 5 eastern states of India found that women with disabilities were prevented from stepping out of their homes, subjected to domestic violence, and had little access to education. Thus, they were doubly disadvantaged – due to their disability and their gender.
Institutions for the visually or hearing handicapped may exist in metropolitan and some big cities, but few such institutions exist in mofussil towns.
Hence, the Louis Braille Memorial School for the Sightless in Uttarpara, Hugli, West Bengal, must be accepted as one of a kind. This institution is a day-cum-residential co-educational school which encourages its students to come out of their diffidence through music and dance.
…women with disabilities were prevented from stepping out of their homes, subjected to domestic violence, and had little access to education. Thus, they were doubly disadvantaged – due to their disability and their gender.
The institution also trains its students in computers, and has them take part in elocution and debates. Two decades ago, when the institution was started in 1985, music and dance were also introduced for the adolescents here. In fact, this was a special “first” for an institution for the visually handicapped. “The then Principal, Pankaj Kumar Das, was a great visionary, and I was enthused by the idea when he approached me,” says the celebrated classical dancer and singer, Keya Chanda, who is currently part of the expert jury that selects national scholars in the performing arts.
Already a two-time national scholar and junior fellow, and an artiste with Doordarshan, she was then emerging as one of the leading exponents of Kathak on the cultural firmament.
However, the school did not have a hall which could be utilized for dancing. So she initially started by teaching the students at her school – Makhla Shinjini. The girls would come in batches, accompanied by a supervisor and spend some time learning the basic hand and feet movements.
She adds, “I was worried about how I would cope. But I soon realized that their level of involvement with learning a new skill surpassed that of ordinary children.” The fact that she was helping visually handicapped adolescent girls was a bigger pleasure than any other, given the fact that even official surveys have proved women with disabilities to be doubly disadvantaged.
The girls spiritedly took to folk and operatic forms and to stage performances. “I found that they can remember much better. We sighted people use our senses to see and memorize. But the visually handicapped are closer to the spiritual part of dance. They feel it from within, and it is close to what Bharat Muni had conceived as a prayer to the Almighty”, she says.
In a couple of years’ time, the girls were ready enough to stage a dance for their annual function at school. Since then, there have been many more batches, and many new girls who have enthusiastically taken to training themselves as performing artistes.
Since then, Ms. Chanda has been teaching the students, and choreographing pieces for special occasions. The present Principal, Bidyut Pal, has continued with the tradition.
Many of the girls are partially blind, or have weak vision. But there are others who are totally blind as well. However, the moment they start dancing, the palpable joy in their faces is all too evident.
…the visually handicapped are closer to the spiritual part of dance. They feel it from within…
Take the case of Tanushree Roy, who is totally blind in one eye, and has her vision failing in the other. “I used to study in a regular school for the sighted until the sixth grade,” she tells me, her voice laden with sorrow. Hailing from a lower middle class home in Rishra, Tanushree found her calling in music and dance when her parents sent her to this school. Right now, she has matured to a regular performer here.
Laxmi Mistry is another student whose story is just as poignant. Her vision started failing from the time she started attending school at around 3 years of age. By the age of 10, she had gone totally blind. Studying here since the past two years, she is now in the seventh grade. For her, dance and music provide an escape, and relief from the darkness she perceives in her life.
For Rabindra Jayanti, marking the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, these girls were part of the troupe that performed an operatic Nritya Alekhya defining Ritu Rang – the four major Indian seasons that Tagore saw so much poetry within.
The School follows the syllabus of the West Bengal state board. But this is a major departure from the syllabi. “We plan to give the students the option of pursuing music and dance as options, as offered under the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), “ Principal Bidyut Pal tells me. He states, “But for all the initiative taken, the school is devoid of any sponsorship. There is hardly any corporate initiative in this regard.”
Even so, it is laudable that a renowned scholar in music and dance like Ms.Chanda is willing to part with precious time to make a difference for the visually challenged, gratis. “I used to feel sorry for them when I first commenced teaching them. But now, I feel proud of them, and am touched by their confidence. It is rewarding enough to be helping them step out to compete on an equal footing with the able-bodied,” she tells me.
*Photo credit: Rina Mukherji.
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