On paper, this was a V-Excel Educational Trust’s Annual Day production. But in reality, ‘Garden of Light’ was a powerful prism for the sheer potential and its intense manifestation of beauty in the world of autism.
As the lights were dimmed in the auditorium and music began to play, time stood still for a moment and then settled into one of the seats. It neatly folded its shroud of memory and placed it on its lap, for it knew, as did every member of the audience, that it wouldn’t need the comfort of the known right now. It wouldn’t need to reach into the collective reality of the past or even the collective imagination of the future. All it would need was to willingly submit to the multiple truths embedded in every single moment unfolding on stage and truly appreciate how ‘special’ that surrender would be.
On paper, this was V-Excel Educational Trust’s Annual Day production, a musical titled ‘Garden of Light’ with 100 special children and their teachers interpreting popular writer Susan Perrow’s original play.
This was V-Excel’s biggest production yet, in terms of technical brilliance and performance, with every single aspect of the play – direction, screenplay, music, performance, choreography, costume, props – jointly executed by the children and teachers.
But in reality, Garden of Light went beyond the obvious. It was a powerful prism for the sheer potential and its intense manifestation of beauty in this world of autism, and a cathartic exercise for those of us unacquainted with the many nuances of this world and the gifts it brings. It ceased to be, in a matter of minutes into the production, a ‘play’ in the truest sense of the word. This seemed like, in its deepest sense of the word, a ‘spectacle’, one that entered our quotidian realities like unexpected rain, at once surprising and welcoming.
For me, especially, having seen V-Excel’s productions over the last ten years (the annual day plays happen once in two years, alternating with a themed sports day programme), Garden of Light was a revelation. It wasn’t so much about the story itself, which was pretty straightforward – Oobaloo, the old guardian of the garden makes sure the Golden Ball (or Sun) is polished every day with a cloth that she spins using the leaves and flowers in the garden. Until, King-Didn’t-Care arrives and destroys the garden to build his fortress, which causes the Golden Ball to become grey. It is only after the king’s death, that through a crack in the wall, a small child finds Oobaloo, who tells him about the wonders of the garden that was. Over the years, children tend to the garden under her guidance, restoring the garden and the Golden Ball to their original glory.
V-Excel’s musical, however, wasn’t a simple projection of this story, but a deep engagement with its many-layered content and a conscious attempt to make each and every person connected to the production (and the audience) locate this story in their own lives. And it is precisely this aspect, and not just the fact that special children were performing, that sets this Annual Day production apart from any other we might have come across, even in the space of special education.
“The way our Annual Day is evolved or put together, ensures deep spiritual growth for every participant,” says Dr. Vasudha Prakash, Founder and Director of V-Excel Educational Trust. “With everything we do, with every activity, we endeavour to help the students to connect with themselves. There is a level of honesty in the whole process.”
This is no idle pride or misplaced humility, because at V-Excel, the child is always kept at the centre, with teachers, parents, and the community at large, working to keep that circle intact. What might seem tedious and relentless on an everyday basis metamorphoses into a magical display of confidence – in movement, speech, rhythm, perception and understanding – during the Annual Day. What we witness over a seamless hour on stage involves a meticulous study of thought and ideas at a level that is, well, humbling to say the least.
“In keeping with the idea of teaching through blocks (one topic for six weeks), a topic (in this case, the story of the play) is chosen and that becomes the English block of the month. The story is told, words are learnt and sentences are read independently. These are extension activities of the story itself,” explains Gita Bhalla, Principal of the Kaleidoscope Learning Centre at V-Excel.
Within this framework of the block, roles are designated, rehearsals conducted, and the growth path of every child and teacher incorporated, all the while maintaining that delicate balance between the aesthetics of the production and the nuances of learning. “We look at the script very carefully, at what each person is going through in their journey of life, what is happening in the air of V-Excel, what have the children been talking about, and then the characters of each individual evolves,” says Neha Baradwaj, teacher and one of the directors of the play. She also wrote the screenplay and played the role of the wolf in the play.
“Sometimes, it is a hard balancing act to see how much space and time to give, how much to push, how much to let things happen on their own, because we also want to put up a good show!” continues Puja Bhalla, psychologist and co-director of the play. “This time, though, we had help from some of the students giving us suggestions of where we need to focus on in the scene.” Puja also worked on the music for this production and played the role of the ‘grass’ in the play.
In fact, while watching the play, you are always aware of an energy that remains elusive and yet gives you a tangible sense of the many million ways in which the children are constantly contributing, providing, giving, holding and nurturing, that go beyond the obvious direction-costumes-screenplay departments.
And you get that by simply watching the play. For instance, when Aaquila, who plays Oobaloo, gestures the thumbs up while on stage to anxious teachers waiting in the wings and then effortlessly slips into her part, you get it. Or when the dark dancers overpower all that is alive and breathing with an intensity that shakes you, you get it. Or when Jaiganesh, who plays the haughty King-Didn’t-Care, sings ‘Save a Place for Me’, live and on record, allowing the innocence of anguish to touch you, you get it.
And when the teachers call it ‘magic’, you get the gravity of a word usually associated with nostalgia for childhood fairy tales, and how, if we wish to see it, that magic does transcend into adult life as well. “There are a few times for me where I felt it tangibly and most of the times it was watching the actors overcome their own personal struggle on stage, in their role, in their eyes” says Puja.
“But it is part of what happens to you when you work with people with special needs. You learn to transform the magic and being overwhelmed into immense gratitude for each human being,” adds Neha. “Students and teachers begin to see more of each other – this shocks us, surprises us and it opens a new avenue in our relationship with each other,” she adds.
And that is the success of V-Excel’s ‘Garden of Light’, because at the end of the play, you see more of the lightness of unconditionality, the privilege of appreciation, the honesty of rhythm and the relentless charm of truth. And quite like magic, if I may borrow the word, you see all of this throbbing and pulsating inside you because, as Gita Bhalla says, “a special child will inspire you to become a special person”.
– Praveena Shivram