Dubai-based Kathak dancer Pali Chandra wouldn’t have believed it herself but after teaching visually-challenged kids this year, seeing means believing
Kathak dancer Pali Chandra had once read that 87 per cent of all learning is done by observation. Watch and learn was the general mantra she used with her protégés. The young girls in front of her now stood eager and poised, but instead of watching her every move, they were only listening to her — and listening hard. With them, Pali knew she didn’t have the 87 per cent that would make their journey of discovery that much easier — because though the girls were all there to learn the classical Kathak dance like her other students, they were also all blind.
For an internationally acclaimed dancer who’d also been working with people with special needs since the age of 17, Pali feels if there was a degree in this field, she should’ve got it by now. That was the confidence with which she entered the Sri Rakum School for the Blind in Bangalore, India, last August. She believed herself capable of “handling this one too”. Only nothing could have been further from the truth.
“It was a very emotional few days,” recalls the 43-year-old mother of two, and one for which she was “totally unprepared”. Speaking in her gentle British accent and seated in her living room with her feet up on the couch, Pali was at total ease in her Uptown Mirdiff home, but recounting the experience and how it all began was still fresh, raw — and a tad overwhelming at times.
“I’m married into a family of doctors who specialise in eye surgery,” she says. “One of my cousins told me about this particular school [for the visually challenged] that she’d go and read stories to the girls in. So when I went down there and saw what I saw, I just tied up my chunni [Punjabi for long scarf] and asked the girls, ‘Do you want to follow me?’ Acharya-ji, the main organiser, was a bit petrified because health and safety was still a priority and he was not so convinced in the beginning that I could pull this off with kids who couldn’t see.”
Pali couldn’t vouch for anything either but asked to give it a shot anyways. She didn’t have the advantage of sight, but in the next eight minutes, sound was to become her new best friend. “I blindfolded myself and started narrating my dance, verbalising my technique,” she says. “My eyes were closed and I was giving them descriptions — how to hold the hand, put the fingertips together, open them slowly, make it into a bee, take it to the flower and let it fly away… I did that only for 7-8 minutes but the kids found it very energising and that’s how I ended up taking a proper workshop with them for two days.”
Two very emotionally taxing days, as Pali would soon find out. If you want to demonstrate something to someone who can’t see, you’d naturally use sound — but there’s touch as well, she reasons. To teach them the hand gestures, she would hold their hands and fold the respective fingers or let them feel her own. But there were challenges; for instance, one of the girls could not stand being touched. “Whatever happened in her past, I don’t know — but she just couldn’t tolerate touch. She didn’t understand Hindi or English; I didn’t know how to speak her language… When I’d say, bend to your right, there was some confusion so I had to touch the girls to show them which direction I meant… But this kid would just get up and walk straight into the wall, even if it hurt her. That’s how [emotionally] aggressive she was… Dance was a way of neutralising those emotions.”
Pali started speaking to the child in soothing tones — because words made no difference; they didn’t speak the same language. “I started making bols [rhythmic words] and she started enjoying those patterns. Gradually we reached a comfort level wherein she started believing in the sound quality of my voice. We started building up a rapport. And then — she danced her heart out.”
Struggling to maintain her composure, Pali continues, “None of the hand movements were right. Her movements were so jerky, erratic and unpredictable — there was no structure to anything she was saying. But the amount of pent-up frustration that was in her… was out. I realised then the strength that dance therapy was all about.”
“I could handle how to verbalise my technique and explain the ethos behind what I was doing,” Pali explains. “The only thing I was not prepared to handle were the questions that were being shot at me — because I’d never had to address them… The girls wanted to learn a Ram bhajan (Hindu devotional song). We picked one and I was explaining how the lyrics spoke about Rama’s head being adorned with a gold crown and his body being as blue and enormous as the blue sky… when one of the girls interrupted me and asked: ‘So what is blue like?’
“I didn’t have an answer to that. How did you explain colours? Blue… is blue…” she says, gesturing helplessly. “There were so many of these innocent questions that were very unnerving and new to me. Even though I’d studied my dance to this level (starting from the age of six), I was nothing when it came to answering those questions.” At the end of the workshop, Pali decided if she could help “even one of them” understand or see the colour blue, her mission would be accomplished.
Over Diwali, she and a group of families from the Gurukul dance institute that she runs collected funds to cover the treatment for cornea operations for 10 of the visually challenged girls that a surgeon friend of hers has offered to do for free. “There are 40 girls in all. We only have funds for 10 as of now. I got a call the other day asking: ‘Didi, konsa dus?’ Meaning, which 10 kids are you talking about?” Once again, and not for the first time since she started this project, Pali was at a loss for what to say.
“The project was impulsive and started out as a personal one,” she says. “Till date I’d never gone public with whatever I’d been doing for the past 20 years. But now I feel it’s time to talk about it and let people know so that more can join in and make the force stronger. You don’t even have to go through Gurukul, just get directly in touch with the institute if you wish to help out... We don’t promise to sort things out nor do we believe in numbers but one step at a time, we believe it will happen.”
(For more information, visit www.rakum.org.)