Blind artists from India to perform at ‘Articulate Ability’ show in Maryland

Interview with Mysore Nagaraj and Buse Gowda.

By Amrutha Rajiv

WASHINGTON, DC: On Sunday, October 5, the Johns Hopkins University chapter of the Association of India’s Development will host “Articulate Ability,” an ensemble of visually challenged artistes that travel around the world to inspire both people with ability and disability. They perform Indian classical, non-classical and folk dances. Amrutha Rajiv spoke to two members of the group, blind artists Mysore Nagaraj and Buse Gowda.

Here are the excerpts:

How did you all meet and how was Articulate Ability formed as a dance group?

Mysore Nagaraj (MG): The five visually challenged dancers that also comprise the group were all together and graduated from a special school for the blind. In the school they already had some basic training in folk dances and other traditional dances. And they were introduced to classical dances as well. After the basic training, and when they came out and became independent, they came together. They had so much passion to further their training and then find more opportunities to perform worldwide. They wanted to add more experience into their dance area. So they came to me along with another colleague, Dr Suparna Venkatesh. We started working along with them and gave them further training and included them in our own dance feature productions as inclusive performances. But we found that they were so extraordinary and their talent so exemplary so we thought we should focus on their independent presentation because they can hold the attention of the audience excellently. We added new repertoire and worked together and well, we have been showcasing their ability cross the world. After working together for a couple of years, it was only three years ago that we formed the non-profit called Articulate Ability, with special focus to encourage artistic talent among people with disabilities. And with that mission we started working as a group with an identity. And for the past 3 years, we have been traveling across the world. That’s a short history of how we came together, the 5 visually challenged dancers and ourselves.

Where are you from and when did you initially start dancing and what got you interested in dancing?

Buse Gowda (BG): I am from a rural area in Mandya district of Karnataka. But I stay in Bangalore. When I lost my sight, I joined a school for the blind in Bangalore. I was 11 or 12 years old when I was introduced to the classical dance form. Without knowing what it is and not having heard of it, I just ventured into it to see what it is. That is how the whole journey started for me. For 20 years, I have been practicing and performing.

How long did it take the group to get proficient in all the various dance forms that they learned from you and what challenges did you face as a teacher and them as students learning from you? How much of your teaching methodology did you have to change to accommodate their ability and disability?

MN:  These 5 young men needed nearly 2 years or so to understand the grammar of Bharatanatyam. Having a strong foundation helped them to build upon that experience and understanding the grammar. Then compositions followed and when they were confident performing small compositions, they graduated to ballet and other dance features. Every time a new choreography is done, it’s actually a learning process. Having learned the alphabet of Indian classical dance, it would be easy to put things together to make a complete repertoire.

Regarding challenges as a teacher, since there was no methodology of teaching classical dance or any sort of dance to visually challenged people, especially a visual art to visually challenged people, it is actually these dancers who taught the teachers how to teach them. They are our teachers!

As teachers, we would just do the movements, but these artists would come and touch the teachers to understand the hand gestures, the body postures and muscular movements, the spatial movements, and understand by this tactile perception and then execute the movement themselves. And only when we see them repeat or reflect what the teacher has done, we fine-tune the movement and this is how perfection is attained. Once these movements are mastered, we put them together and set them to the rhythm and melody and poetry and thus the entire repertoire is learned by them. So in fact, we need not change any of our teaching methods, it just goes slower compared to the time it takes to teach a sighted student. It needs a little more explanation, but the perseverance and the patience finally paid off.

BG:  Visual arts for the visually challenged people was not known and to get into classical art form as a profession was something unimaginable. It was a task for both teacher and the student on how to teach the dance because there was no script as such and also it was a visual art. To start the process, when the teacher performed a step in front of us, I went up to him and felt the movements and gestures and repeated them, so he understood that visually challenged people train using this tactile perception method. We took about 2-3 years to complete the basic steps. It was a tough time initially. When we got into the compositions, it got us interested in pursuing the dance form further.

What are the other ways in which you reach out to your local community?

MN: Articulate Ability having successfully awaked the innate artistic talent among these people, we tried to put them on stage and performances in dance festivals. When that caught the eye, we also promoted their ability among the corporate programs for cultural entertainment. Apart from this, we have been very successfully involved in presenting motivational workshops where the artists not only exhibit their dance ability, but they also share their personal life stories and the triumphs and tribulations that they have gone through. This is very inspiring for the onlooker whether s/he is a person with disability or not. They are always motivated by the lesson that “if you really dream of doing something, come what may, you can always achieve it if only you persist and stick to it with passion”. Apart from this, there are special performances organized by organizations dealing with disability. These are the various ways in which we reach out to the community to make them understand that people with visual challenges can be successful in the mainstream.

How do you manage your time with work and dance?

BG: After school, we wanted to continue dance as it was something different and unique. So we approached Mr. Nagaraj to take us under their umbrella and help us continue our journey. We cannot live off dance alone, so we have a job too. In recent days we have been practicing a couple of hours 2-3 times a week. During tours we practice even more!

What is the best part of performing in front of an audience? And what has been the most rewarding experience you have had so far?

BG: To be in dance. The audience. Dance gives us spiritual feelings. When the audience applauds, the appreciation really boosts our energy and confidence. The shows which we have performed so far across the world have boosted our confidence. After our motivational workshops, many people have written to us. These are the rewards for our performances.

How has your tour in the US been so far?

MN: It has been a really great experience. We are happy with all the accolades we have received. At every program we have gotten standing ovations. When people come backstage or when we see them in the foyer, we see their appreciation, excitement, tears in their eyes. They say “I wish a lot of people will see this program, I wish my friends would come. The reaction has been fantastic so far. They ask when we will come again. That’s a sign of appreciation.

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