Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CHILD: February 07, 1999
Reaching out to the disabled
Art therapy is practised in several parts of India today with varying degrees of success. There is enthusiastic talk about the compelling power of the performing arts - dance, music and theatre - to heal the mind and body. Many expatiate on their therapeutic application for treating physical and mental disabilities. They believe that the arts make fascinating, flexible tools to help disabled children increase their cognitive/ communicative skills, motor coordination, develop speech and expression, originality and creativity. Learning to sing, dance and act enables them to socialise better, to become confident that they are in no way inferior to the so-called "normal" children. In fact, they have better abilities in certain areas.
However, it is one thing to theorise on the subject, another to engage in its practical application.
Ask yourself how you will make a blind child enact a rainy day. S(h)e will know the feel of raindrops on the skin, but not the spectacle of water pouring down from the skies. How will you teach a deaf child to skip on the second beat in the rhythm cycle of a song? Or make the orthopaedically disabled play the role of one who has the use of all his limbs? A mentally retarded child learns a poem and recites it without getting distracted?
For over 15 years, Kanchan Sontakke in Mumbai has been discovering answers to a whole range of such questions with hands on experience in using theatre arts to help hundreds of disabled children. She has also done pioneering work in training an equal number of teachers in the methodology she has devised for the task.
"Task?" Kanchan would say with a quizzical smile. "It is sheer joy to see the child changing before your eyes, acquiring so many skills within a short time."
Kanchan had no training for her life's mission which has brought her many honours - the Natyadarpan, Dalit Mitra, Apang Mitra, Maharashtra Kala Niketan, Bajrangbhumi and Natyagaurav awards as also a senior fellowship in theatre from the Ministry of Culture. She did start with a strong will, enthusiasm and a sound training in the theatre arts.
Kanchan Sontakke with hearing impaired children.
A graduate in chemistry and microbiology, she had put in ten years of Kathak and Bharatanatyam, a year in lab pathology, and two years in acting, direction and stagecraft at Amrut Natyabharati, Mumbai. Marriage to Professor Kamlakar Sontakke, took Kanchan to Aurangabad, where he headed the drama department at the Marathwada University. She became a faculty member. This gave her the chance to observe the "potential of the medium, its capacity to influence people to develop in different directions," recalls Kanchan. She refused to start a children's theatre though, feeling that she was not prepared for it. "People think it is easy, don't realise it is very demanding, requiring a grasp of child psychology."
Experience came with the birth of her two daughters. "I saw then that a child grows each week, day, hour... we lump them blithely into age groups. But what a difference between a first grader and a second!"
The next step was taken when the family returned to Mumbai. Her old school principal invited Kanchan to teach creative dramatics exclusively for personality development. "I had to devise my own syllabus - no books. The foreign texts were not applicable to our conditions."
A more exciting experimental process began in 1981 when Kanchan Sontakke launched an institution for her work with children. Her Natyashala's objective was to integrate disabled children with "normal" children, for their mutual benefit. "The hearing/sight impaired, orthopaedically handicapped and mentally disadvantaged special children are admitted into separate schools, with separate texts and a separate language. They don't get any exposure to society, branded as they are into unseen, alternative streams." Kanchan wanted such children to prove to themselves and to others that they were not inferior to their peers; and in some ways they were actually ahead. To the "normal" children, this interaction provided many startling lessons. They had much to learn from the disabled.
Kanchan Sontakke with physically disabled children.
The special children did not have magical gifts or faculties, but their very disadvantage made them finetune what they had to an intense sharpness. The volunteers who came to teach them at the workshops (usually the friends of the Sontakkes in the theatre world) were amazed by this and would say, "Though as theatrepersons we are trained to perceive more than laypersons, we perceive only half of what these children do!" The blind listened more, the deaf saw more fully - this was part of their instinctive survival strategy. Bearing this in mind, Natyashala's workshops and productions do not isolate the disabled, though some special programmes are confined to disadvantaged groups.
Kanchan is careful to emphasise that in a group of disabled children, there would always be a few with that extra something, some who get by, and one or two who will sit in the corner and refuse to participate. "We encourage them, but never use force. As their insecurities melt, they begin to socialise more, open up slowly. Their involvement gets stronger," explains Kanchan. The degree of involvement varies with each child. For the guide, success is in watching this change and growth of self assurance. Getting the bashful ones to join the group is counted as achievement. Kanchan recalls how a little girl who had refused to go to school for six months, and sat with her face to the wall, muttering unintelligibly, came out of her shell after joining a Natyashala workshop. The parents were delighted when she returned to school. To prevent regression, Kanchan ensured that she was involved in other Natyashala activities, including a play. Another case was of a boy with short arms, who refused even to clap at first, but ended up playing a musical instrument in a stage show. The manner in which children with different degrees and kinds of disabilities overcome them in group activity is an eye-opener for the adults. The process of teaching is the same for all, though the application has to necessarily differ for each child. It makes the work exciting, even thought-provoking.
"It is not me," disclaims Kanchan, "It is the medium which helps them unfold and realise their potential."
Some statistics tell their own tale. In the last 17 years, Natyashala has worked with over 1300 children and an equal number of teachers. It has produced 35 plays (Marathi and Hindi) with 450 shows, in Maharashtra, Goa, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. It has conducted dance shows, instrumental/vocal ensembles and multilingual choral singing.
Kanchan Sontakke with at a teacher's workshop training to teach disabled children through the performing arts.
The institution has conducted state level dance competitions in collaboration with the State Department of Culture and Social Welfare. Natyashala has also helped to give shape to "Umang," a national festival for disabled children in Udaipur. "The children from all over India meet and have a gala time! They stay in Shilpagram, learn crafts from village craftsmen, participate in morning workshops, present plays in the evenings...." Natyashala's own productions have not only been featured in children's festivals and those of disabled persons, but in regular theatre festivals as well. "This integration is a source of great satisfaction."
Natyashala's plays are often written by well known playwrights, bearing in mind the theme and age group at a given time. They are evolved in rehearsals so that the audience does not perceive that a particular mode or technique has been adopted to serve the special needs of its participants. For example, a child with a speech problem was given a mannerism of rendering his dialogue in a staccato manner. The lack of fluent speech in the deaf became an advantage when the cast was asked to become live puppets to enact the story. The jerky movements matched the dialogue delivery!
Some of the plays are dramatisations of text books on various subjects like history and geography. "The Evolution of the Earth" was one such ambitious and acclaimed project as in "Maharashtra Amucha," performed enthusiastically before a Delhi audience at a national children's festival in November'98.
Kanchan Sontakke with a blind child.
The workshops (4 to 8 years) in the different schools do not have a stage production as their goal. "Then our focus will be to identify the more talented child for a successful show rather than help each child to grow in his/her way. We do present this process at the end before the parents. The thrill is to get the child sitting apart in a corner to join the group, to laugh and smile, to dance and sing."
Arun Madkaikar and his wife Rupa have been Kanchan's supportive colleagues from the start, with assistance from many others as and when required. Today there is a salaried staff to expand the work. In 1998, ten artists/teachers were appointed with a grant from the Central Government, among them three hearing and two visually impaired, who had been child participants in the Natyashala workshops! They have joined the staff as young adults.
"This is a great achievement for me," Kanchan's voice is full. She recalls another unexpected moment. "Once we did a play in which a mentally retarded child had to cry 'Wolf! Wolf!' in fun, until a real wolf appeared and frightened him. Another mentally retarded child in the audience then began to shout 'He is frightened!' over and over again. He had fully responded to the situation and its rasa!"
Natyashala has not produced a full length play with mentally retarded children, because it is too time-consuming. But it has trained their teachers who in turn have produced plays featured in Natyashala's festivals.
Kanchan's daughters are deeply interested in their mother's work. Manasi, the elder, an architect and dancer, has choreographed, some of the Natyashala shows.
Funding comes from grants for the different activities from the State and Central Governments, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the National School of Drama and the Centre for Cultural Research and Training. With a past full of achievements, a present of dizzying activities, Kanchan Sontakke and her colleagues in Natyashala look forward to expanding and networking with more groups and organisations in the future - to reach more and more children.
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