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Stepping out of the ordinary
- Archana Kaul

August 4, 2022

True consciousness and spiritual growth have a connotation of giving more and expecting less. But I got more than I gave. The pleasure and fulfilment I got through my work, also provided me with a creative outlet. I had no idea how an opportunity to teach dance, incorporating basic techniques of Kathak to girls at an NGO would help these children grow confident and provide a gamut of rich experience to life. Interaction with these children made me step out of the ordinary and humdrum existence.

It was at the turn of the century, 26th of January 2000, that I visited and met the children of the NGO. At that time I did not even know the name of this NGO. I went along at a friend's suggestion, just for the heck of it. I didn't even know what I would be doing there, or if I was needed there. Most of my work experience had been in the field of teaching History to undergraduates in Delhi University, writing reviews on music and dance, and working as a researcher. I had worked in a small school in a Delhi village, as part of an educational experiment. After their disinterested response for studying their academic subjects, I decided to give some input of music and dance, as an icebreaker, having knowledge of Kathak.

Soon the benefits of teaching, learning, experiences of dance began to show up. As any art form, dance too is a medium of expression. It helps in expressing oneself better, through facial expressions and body movements and hand gestures. Growing children often become less self-conscious about themselves if they dabble in any sports or performing arts. Experience of stage makes them more confident of themselves and in their dealings with the world around them. Thus, encounter with dance provided an aesthetic outlet to articulate themselves, to hop, skip, dance and prance about as young children feel like doing. It held a tremendous potential of providing a “space” all their own. When the debutant dancers enjoyed their dance, so did the spectators enjoy their performance. Such is the spirit of dance, like the joie de vivre, it touches all who come in contact with it.

Dancing to Tagore's poem
Dancing to Tagore's poem

In our country, teenage girls, having fewer opportunities, hardly experience the joys of a carefree childhood. For most of them, scores of household chores fall into their laps, leaving them with atrophied childhood. This got reflected in the way they sat while doing the dance namaskars. They sat like they are getting ready to do some chores like washing clothes or utensils. The initial phase of teaching these children was tedious and laborious. They were stiff, wooden, ungainly, and with tensed up bodies. The manner of their grasping any movement was frustrating. If they got their footwork right, it was not in conjunction with the hand and body movements. It took a long time to coordinate all aspects in totality.

The children too found it tough to mentally and physically coordinate all their movements (of face, hands, body and feet). In the beginning, the importance of eye movements was beyond their comprehension. They only understood that their faces should not be covered and that they must have a constant eye contact with the audience. Gradually they began to enjoy their dance movements. From dance exercises, to simple movements set on simple poems and to pre-recorded music, we gradually progressed to teaching basics of Kathak. We also hoped that they would have the choice to choose beyond film music, which was most readily available at hand, via radio, television and social media.

Our first opportunity of performing came on Independence Day when the girls danced to Vande Mataram. All dresses and makeup came from homes of volunteers like me. It was a hilarious, colourful mishmash of dresses, accessories and of course make up. One girl got stage fright and getting ready, she slinked back to her home.

It was certainly not a fantastic recital. But the euphoria of going on the stage and dancing in front of an audience was unusual. It had an exotic dreamlike quality: of dressing up, facing lights, applause and appreciation, photographs of which were engraved in their memories. There was also this new image of themselves as being more than 'mere' ordinary, constrained girls, who otherwise would not have had an opportunity to learn something that was not necessary or essential for their basic education. For most parents, their higher education was not of prime importance as compared to their security and safety. In such a scenario the exposure to stage performances, their brush with performing arts brought them respect, which does not come their way in normal course of their daily routines. Most important was that it increased their self worth.

Archana Rajput
Archana Rajput

Aside of the salutary impact on my life, I noticed positive personality changes in these children, specially the girls. They enjoyed the space so much that they seemed to yearn for more. There were a handful of girls, who in the beginning took more than a passing interest in learning dance. By the end of their first exposure to dance and stage, there were many more girls of all age groups, who were now more keenly interested in dance. But alas due to paucity of space, a lot of the younger girls just have to wait in the wings till there is more space to teach them. From Srijanatmak Manushi Sanstha (SMS), the present NGO I have been working in, there are some of them who have taken to dance as a profession like Archana Rajput, Himanshi (both perform in dance dramas, epic ballets, fusion style, Odissi and Kathak), and Mahima (4th year of Foundation course from Kathak Kendra).

One of my best rewards has been to see the joy and eagerness reflected in their eyes and visages. The love and respect they bestow on me are equally overwhelming and humbling. What these children learnt at that time was so simple and elementary, and yet they cherished it. The whole exercise of learning dance and enjoying it probably stems from the fact that they got to express themselves joyously. Their confidence developed further by performing as a team, with coordination and cooperation.

Video of dance performed by SMS girls

This work in turn has enriched, and stimulated lives of volunteers like me, and helped in the revival of our creative sensibilities. We gained a larger family, beyond the ones we were born into, and the ones we got married into. For me it was a gentle reminder of a wider world beyond our narrow confines and concerns, which one often forgets. This was the beginning of my journey of working in the voluntary sector, at the grassroots level.

Archana Kaul
Archana Kaul has been a rolling stone - from working as a researcher, to writing music and dance reviews, to teaching in Delhi University, to freelance writing, to working in the voluntary sector, using theatre and dance as a tool of learning and awareness.

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