At Bengaluru’s Shree Ramana Maharishi Academy for the Blind, visually impaired children learn how to dance.
Rohini, a Class 9 student, has been learning dance from the age of six. Her dance training includes rigorous practise for coordination and flexibility, through a unique touch-and-feel style of teaching. Passionate about Kuchipudi, her ears are attuned to the rhythm of this dance form and its music. Her hands take up their positions automatically and her feet thump loudly. The fact that she can’t see the audience, the stage, or her fellow performers, does not stop her from following her dream of wanting to become a professional dancer.
She is one of the many blind students in Bengaluru who are learning to dance at the Shree Ramana Maharishi Academy for the Blind (SRMAB).
A holistic centre that provides education for the blind, this academy is one of the first of its kind in India to teach dance to visually impaired students.
In 1969, T V Srinivasan and his friend Thirumoorthi began SRMAB in a small room with one blind student and many big dreams. “I once visited Tiruvannamalai along with my friend, Thirumoorthi. While meditating we received a distinct vision that we should serve the disabled. This inspired us to start the academy.”
Srinivasan, who was trained in special education at Narendrapur, Kolkata, started the school to ensure those who are blind recognise their own potential and live their lives fully. Almost 200 students are enrolled annually. They are given free lodging and medical facilities.
Since its inception, more than 5000 students have passed Class 10 from the school, with Braille as their language.
Vocational training and extracurricular activities, such as dance, music and sports, are considered essential at SRMAB. “We always motivated the disabled, and encouraged, trained them in various fields like agro-based farming, poultry, vocational training, yoga, dance, table, and more,” says Srinivasan.
In 1973, dance and music were initiated into the school as an extracurricular activity.
But it was only in 1982 that the unique technique of touch and feel teaching was introduced by Gurus Sharadha Natarajan and Ambica Natarajan.
Besides opening up new possibilities for the students, such activities give them confidence and purpose. “Dance helps them feel motivated, empowers them with confidence to meet challenges. They are exposed to different places, people and society, which educates them to live life with dignity and self-esteem,” adds Srinivasan.
Dharmaraju, 29, is an ex-student of SRMAB and has been teaching dance at the academy since 2009. He had joined the school as a student in 1994, at the age of nine. His talent for dance was recognised at the academy right from the beginning. In 1997, he began taking classical dance lessons from Guru Shri K. Narayan.
While it was challenging to follow rhythm and postures owing to his visual impairment, the dedicated efforts by the guru paid off. The same year, in his first stage performance at Chennai, the audience showered him with praise about his precision and grace. That was all the appreciation that he needed. After school, he completed a diploma in dance and performed across the globe. “Among my most cherished moments was my first stage performance abroad in 1999,” he says, “It was in Adelaide, Australia, and I was representing India at a folk festival. A few years later, in 2008, I performed for Akka Sammelan in Chicago, USA. They were both exhilarating performances.”
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Today, he teaches students like himself and choreographs classical dance routines for them to perform around the globe.
Srinivasan, who was awarded with the Karnataka State Award for Social Worker of the Year 2008, is more than proud of his students.
“As ambassadors of Indian culture and the abilities of people with disabilities, the group has been regularly sponsored to tour UK, USA, Australia, and Italy,” he says. “Tours like these raise awareness on the issues faced by persons with disabilities, while highlighting their abilities in delighting audiences with their spectacular performances.”
But, how do the visually impaired learn dance without watching someone perform? Srinivasan elucidates, “First, the concept is explained to students. The gurus make them understand the bhaavam and they visualise the whole situation before they start learning the dance.” Adds Dharmaraju, “Coordinating the movements in a group is quite challenging and it takes a longer time to learn to perfection.”
SRMAB is involved in several other activities that are all aimed at empowering the visually impaired and their families.
For instance, the Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) programme was started in 1990 in Kanakapura Taluka, and later in Malavalli, Hubli, Ramnagara, and Mandya districts. Severely disabled farmers and their families are provided CBR. Through self-help groups, training and school-based intervention, CBR aims to raise awareness about health, education and economic betterment. It also organises health and nutrition camps.
In 2013, Rohini performed Kuchipudi at the Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru. The performance bagged a Guinness record, with 1054 dancers, of which 20 were visually challenged. This is only one of the many awards and performances by the students of SRMAB. As Srinivasan puts it, “Through the universal language of art, young, visually impaired dancers send out a strong message: the light, extinguished in their own eyes, is relit in the dance, affirming that there are no people with disabilities, only those who are differently abled.”