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Deafness is no handicap for the dancers of the Clarke school
As with all Astad Deboo productions, the moment the Contrapositions show by dancers of the Clarke school for the deaf ended at Mumbai, there was a stunned silence. And then the applause rolled down in waves. Later, the dancers stood up front so that audience members could come and meet them. One elegantly clad lady made her way to the front and quietly touched the feet of the dancers. “Would you believe it or not?” says Deboo, “but she was none other than Helen, the grand lady of dancing. Such humility! But the dancers did not who she was.” Deboo has been working with deaf children for the past sixteen years in places as diverse as Hongkong, Mexico, USA and, of course, India. And it all began rather casually. On a visit to Kolkata, he told Zarine Choudhury, the artistic director of the deaf company, Action Players, “Why don’t you take the advantage of my being here and do a workshop for the kids?” It was only after the third year that both Choudhury and Deboo felt that it was possible to create a full programme, half dance and half mime. And even though you see perfect synchronicity between the dancers during a programme, there is a lot of sweat, tears and frustrations behind the serene display. “The way I teach is that they all have to count in their heads… 1, 2, 3, 4. All have to count in the same rhythm, to be in sync.” Mostly, the dancers learn through sign language, body gestures and lip reading.
In Kolkata, they lip read in English, in Mexico, it is in Spanish and in places like Bhopal, it is Hindi.And it is not just a one-way process. Whenever he works on a new composition, time and time again, he would come to a dead end. Then he would tell the dancers, ‘Okay, show me what you have in your repertoire.’” So they would show something and he would try to see whether he could incorporate it in his choreography. “It is a creative collaboration between the girls and me,” he says. But underneath the affability, he is a hard taskmaster. “I am patient but after that, the girls get the fireworks,” he says. “When they start crying, I say, ‘I am not going to melt, so there is no point.’ I give them encouragement but I don’t say ‘Wah!’ because I want to keep pushing them. Because it is only then that they will get better and better through every performance.”
And, like in all dance troupes, he also has a diva. “She is very talented and she knows it,” he says, with a smile and shaking his head from side to side. “From time to time, she throws a tantrum in her coterie.” The youngest girl in the troupe is a thirteen-year-old and the diva, who is 22, decided to take her on as a protégé. “One day after a show, I saw the younger one massaging the feet of the older one. I said, ‘What nonsense is going on?’ And the diva replied, ‘My leg was paining and I just asked her to massage it.’”
And like ordinary teenagers, they also love to receive accolades. “Every morning, if we have a performance in a city, they will say, ‘In which newspaper are we in today?’ I try to make sure everybody gets an original copy. Sometime ago, there was an article in the newspaper and I had only one copy. And the diva said, ‘I want the original’. And we had to remind her that there was only one copy and she would get a photocopy like the others.”
Asked about his future plans, Deboo says he would continue to work with the Clarke School dancers. “We are going for a tour of Singapore and Malaysia and following that, we will be doing several shows in India which will keep us busy till the end of the year. And then there is a commission for the inauguration ceremony for the 2007 Winter Olympics for the Deaf in Salt Lake City.”