Dancing wheels

They might not be able to walk, but these Bharatanatyam dancers sure can set the stage on fire.

Gulshan Kumar, 19, bends to attach a crutch, to the back of his wheelchair. Syed Sallauddin Pasha, 43, “Guruji” to his students, gives instructions.

In Bharatanatyam, an idol of Lord Nataraja is kept on stage. In “Bharatanatyam on Wheels”, the disabled-but-able students do a puja for the wheelchair-with-crutch.

Gulshan holds a world record for the fastest wheelchair spins: 63 in one minute (the old record was 32). “The wheelchair spins at 100 kmph, faster than a professional dancer,” says Pasha proudly. Gulshan’s parents iron clothes for a living in Delhi. How can our son dance, they asked. “Now they’re proud of me,” says Gulshan. They see him on TV, and he performs in the West. Familiar with some martial arts, he can handle costumes, makeup, lighting and sound.

Alka, 19, is hearing- and speech-impaired. She looks me in the eye confidently and tells me in sign language that she can challenge a physically-fit dancer on the stage.

Ashiq Usman, 21, says he had little confidence at first. He started spinning on the wheelchair and was gradually taught expression and mudras. “Guruji didn’t tell me I was learning Bharatanatyam,” he says. “One day I was shown a video, and I realised that I had been learning this art.” Usman’s debut two years ago earned him a standing ovation. He knows stage-lighting and video-editing. “Beyond a certain age,” he says, “I can’t dance, so these skills will help me.”

These and four more dancers on January 23 stunned the audience at the Chinmaya Heritage Centre in Chennai, executing classic moves including the thirmanam. “We didn’t get a chance at the Chennai dance festival,” says Pasha. “So we decided to conduct our own show.”

Pasha founded the Ability Unlimited Foundation, Delhi, and conducts workshops for the disabled. AUF offers a diploma in dance and choreography, and courses in dance, therapy, lighting, photography, film-making, editing, sound and animation. He and AUF are in the Limca Book of Records for 100 original ballads and 10,000 performances. There are 150 students, including 22 foreigners. Fifty can perform on stage. “It takes 10 years to make [students] independent,” Pasha says.

At the end of the show, S Rajan, 62, who had come with his 22-year-old granddaughter, who is mentally challenged, says, “It’s their ability that now comes to my mind first, not their disability.”

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