Ending 2010 on a note of hope
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi
e-mail: shanta.serbjeetsingh@gmail.com

December 28, 2010

If narthaki.com's hardworking editor remains with my title for this year ending edition of Base Notes, then you could be forgiven for thinking that I must be the mother of all THE champion optimists that ever dotted this planet! Have I already forgotten the many powerful new acronyms that got added this year to our vocabulary - CWG, (Commonwealth Games), 2G ( second generation telephony), JPC ( Joint Parliamentary Committee), PAC (Public Accounts Committee) and that one acronym to beat all others, Wikileaks (a beautiful one, that. It means “What you get is what is known”)? And am I not aware that the achievement of Julian Lassange, the Australian braveheart founder of Wikileaks, a web portal for journalistic activity that has already, and forever, taken both print and electronic journalism to an entirely new level, has added just one emotion for the PLUs ( People Like Us), i.e. hopelessness. So, am I brave or simply foolish to be looking for “hope” as my new year gift to you in the last moments of this never-to-be-forgotten year?

But search for hope I will and find it too, if you stay with me long enough, actually no more than to the end of this column. Its core is in my belief that Indian culture validates us, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Dalits, OBCs, the upper class, the middle class, the lower class, the urban educated and the rural illiterates. Whatever the category, whatever the line that you draw between one Indian and another, this culture unites and sublimates us all. For proof, I turn to just this one conversation I had last week, with the art therapist, Sallauddin Pasha. For a start, Pasha has taught the world that there is 'ability unlimited' in the word 'disability.' For the rest, for him and his Kathak dancer wife Rani Khanum, resting on their laurels is a phrase that has no meaning. I have closely followed Pasha's work for over a decade and even drawn on his therapy skills for my APPAN project in four Asian countries in 2005 where we pioneered the use of the arts for delivering stress therapy to tsunami victims.

I have watched his amazing work with first identifying, then training, and then performing, that too in a classical dance form like Bharatanatyam and on proper proscenium stages, groups of young, wonderful dancers who cannot use their legs, are autistic, visually impaired or are unable to hear. He has taught them to dance, on stilts and on wheelchairs! From Sufi saint Khwaja Rumi's life to the Mahabharat and the Ramayana, he has helped his unique repertory build up a grand corpus of compositions.

On December 6th, the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, he presented his latest production, that of the Ramayana, on five specially constructed stages, on the 3 acre campus of his hosts, the Bal Kalyan Sanstha, before an audience of 20,000 in Pune. 'Guruji Pasha' as he is called, was at home in reciting the chaupais and breathing life in o the Ram Charit Manas with a cast of over 200 youngsters, among them 80 who couldn't hear the music, as many who couldn't see or had other disabilities and the smallest artiste was a 3 year old. No one knew or cared that Guruji is a Muslim, or that Pasha's own parents, both doctors, have never once seen a work of his. They have never shown any interest in what he does, let alone know how or why he does what he does. Instead, through all his growing years in his native village of Anakal, in south Karnataka, he braved two major behemoths, his staunch Muslim parents' disapproval of his love for classical dance and for learning Vedic literature.

Pasha describes his early exposure to both dance and Hindu scriptures thus: “Every morning, on the way to school, I would be hearing the recitation of Suras through one part of my brain and Vedic patha with the other. After formal school, I would go to the house of my friend and classmate, the son of the man who ultimately agreed to be my guru, Shri Astaksharam Narayana Iyengar. A dyed-in-the wool Namboodri Brahmin who sported a chutia in the centre of his shaven head, like his son, he would allow me to sit outside the wooden threshold, the periphery to his room. From that vantage point, from the age of six till I was sixteen, I learnt Sanskrit, the Ramayan, the Mahabharat, the Bhagawad Gita, the Vedas and the Upanishad. The moment the clandestine class would get over, I would rush home for a Quran session with my mother. Since dance as a profession was frowned upon by them, I bought peace by agreeing to graduate in pharmacy. However, on the side I continued to train with great gurus, in Kathak with Guru Maya Rao for 15 years, in Bharatanatyam with the late Guru Kittappa Pillai for five years and with the late Guru Narmada for ten years. I learnt Carnatic music with Raman Mani and took training in Theatre from BV Karanth. Not content with this, I went on to acquire a 3 year Choreography Diploma from Maya Rao's Natya Institute of Choreography, and also a three years Bachelor's Degree in Choreography from the same school.”

Since then Pasha has chalked up an amazing track record of nearly 30 years in empowering, nurturing, training and giving dignity and equality to persons with disabilities around the world through more than 100 innovative choreography productions. Sufi Dance on Wheel Chairs, Bharatanatyam on Wheels, Martial Arts on Wheels, Durga on Wheels, Bhagawad Gita on wheels, Rhythm of Motion and Emotion, Buddha on Wheels, Ramayana on Wheels (performed by 200 children and adults with various disabilities in India and Europe), Krishna The Blue God (performed by 200 artists with multiple disabilities), Women of India: 6000 BC to 2000 AD (performed by 100 hearing impaired women), The Kind Tiger and the Sincere Cow (performed by children and adults with autism, mental retardation and palsy)…it seems like the list will never end!

Pasha has worked as an international scholar at Cornell University, USA, as special pedagogic Choreographer and Director for the Educational Department of Finland, as Artistic consultant and dancer for Sutra Dance Theatre, Malaysia, conducted workshops for special educators and dancers in the field of Choreography as a Healing Tool in India, Malaysia, Finland, United Kingdom and Italy. In brief, by showing the power of One, Pasha has made a lot of people, especially these Children of a Lesser God, very happy and ready to face the life that the gods have chalked out for them.

Should that not make one believe, however haltingly, that the New Year could bring some hope, after all!

Happy New Year!

Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum-India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.