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To hear and be heard
by Lalitha Venkat, Chennai
August 16, 2003

In our daily life, there are many things that we take for granted, like our ability to see, to walk, to talk, to hear...How many spare a thought to the other group of people in the middle of society who are not as fortunate as we are? Can the differently abled merge into mainstream society peopled by the abled? Can they live as normal a life as other human beings? Can they pursue careers and become eminent in their chosen professions? Can we be comfortable in their company? Can we be friends with them? The questions are endless. In this self-centered materialistic world, there are a still a few individuals who have not only given a thought, but have made great differences in the lives of such people.

When Dr. Leelavathy Patrick completed her Masters in Special Education for the Deaf from the University of Massachusetts, she was motivated to found The Clarke School for the Deaf and Mentally Retarded in Chennai in 1970 with one deaf toddler (Apitha) and two children with multiple disabilities. The Clarke School traces its first association with Siemens when the parent of a deaf child studying in the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, donated a second hand Siemens hearing aid.

Apitha Prabhakar is now employed as an officer in a bank. The school has played a positive role in the lives of innumerable students by imparting initial education and then integrating them in mainstream schools and colleges, and helping them to get government recognized professional qualifications. Indian culture and traditions are inculcated through training in dance, craft and yoga. Today, the school caters to nearly 500 students with different physical disabilities. Some students, who have been brought under the umbrella of the Sadhana Troupe of Deaf Artistes, are trained in Bharatanatyam and other Indian dance forms. The troupe has performed in various national and international forums. Mention must be made of Lakshmi Mahesh and Narayani whose dedication and patience has contributed a lot to the development of the artistes' skills.

Dancer/choreographer Astad Deboo has been involved in working with the deaf for the past 16 years, not only in India but also in other countries like USA, Mexico and Hong Kong. Working with the deaf over the years has given Astad a lot of joy and inspiration. What had started off as a chance workshop became a passionate commitment for the dancer, who is associated with the theatre group Action Players in Kolkata. Recognizing the potential in the Sadhana dancers, he evinced interest in working with them in Chennai. His efforts were warmly welcomed by Leelavathy and in July 2002, R Karthika did the school proud by performing with Astad at the Deaf Way II Festival in Washington.

It was through Astad that Leelavathy came into contact with Siemens once again, after a gap of more than 30 years.

Siemens Bangalore had a conference for its CEOs from the Asia Pacific region on July 1, 2003. Some senior executives of Siemens Germany were also present for the 3-day conference. To close the conference, Astad was asked to come up with a performance spanning a spectrum of traditional India to contemporary India. As they were aware of his work with the deaf and as Siemens has a unit manufacturing hearing aids, they felt it would add a nice touch to the show if he could involve some of his work with the deaf. That's how the Sadhana Dance Troupe came to be part of the presentation, which also involved the Thang-ta artistes and the pung cholom drummers of Manipur with whom he has been working.

Astad has recently set up the Astad Deboo Dance Foundation, which will support his work with the disadvantaged as well as his activities connected to dance. The performance by the Sadhana troupe left the delegates in no doubt about Astad's sincerity and dedication to the cause of the deaf. In acknowledgement and appreciation, some of the delegates had no hesitation in promising help for Astad's new foundation.

In collaboration with the Astad Deboo Dance Foundation, Mr. Schubert, the MD of Siemens not only announced the donation of hearing aids from Siemens Hearing Instruments Pvt Ltd for young and needy disadvantaged children, but also promised to personally come to Chennai and hand over the hearing aids to the 36 chosen students of Clarke school. The selection was made by the school based on the extent of hearing loss and the instruments would be individually fitted to the children.

A special function was arranged on August 13th at the Clarke School campus for the purpose. Mr. Schubert found it a humbling experience when he walked around the school. "It is fascinating how small things like hearing aids can make such a difference to the children. Everybody has a responsibility. To 'embrace social responsibility to advance society' is our motto. It starts with us, not with the government or anybody else. Leelavathy did not wait for the govt or anybody else. She started the school out of her own initiative and one can see the fruit of her efforts today. The first effort must come from us. Then we can ask the corporate world and then the govt." Speaking of responsibilities towards the disadvantaged minority, he said less talk and more action was the need of the hour and urged the press to play a positive role in spreading awareness among the people.

Proud of a German company's association with such a noble cause, Mr. Kopp, the new Consul General of Germany in Chennai, took a break from his unpacking, to participate in the function.

The dance program featured Astad and 6 dancers from the Sadhana Troupe. The performance started with Pushpanjali followed by the Thillana in Bharatanatyam dance technique. The next 3 items were choreographed by Astad. 'Circle of Feelings' was performed by the whole group, followed by 'First Step', a duet by Astad and Karthika. These 2 items with Astad's trademark slow and sinuous movements were specially choreographed and performed by Astad and Karthika at the Deaf Way II Festival at Gallaudet University, Washington.

The last item was full of joyous movements. Titled 'Untitled' it had Astad in the lead with the 6 dancers mirroring his actions. In his work with the deaf, the mirroring technique is used by Astad to test the quick reflexes and concentration of the dancers and they did not disappoint him. Judging by the coordination maintained by the dancers, especially Karthika, it would be hard to guess that they were performing to the sounds of silence. The Sadhana Troupe proved that hearing impairment was in no way a hindrance to master an art that is generally perceived as being the privilege of the hearing world.

After the distribution of hearing aids, the evening ended with a vote of thanks by Astad. You cannot see him, you cannot hear him, but you can read his beautiful speech that I would like to share with you.

My Ears Can't Hear
Why ask me:
Why don't I hear you?

My ears can't hear.
But my mind can race!
Learning and thinking and knowing.

My ears can't hear.
But my eyes can see!
Colors and movements and feelings.

My ears can't hear.
But my nose can smell!
Coffee and flowers and the sea.

My ears can't hear.
But my lips can taste!
Chocolate and kisses and wine.

My ears can't hear.
But my fingers can fly!
Touching and drawing and signing.

My ears can't hear.
But my heart can sing!
Joys and dreams and memories.

(And so) I ask you:
Why don't you hear me?

When I read this poem written by a deaf child Louise Zawadzski, it seemed to encapsulate the voices I have been hearing in my 16 years of work with deaf children. In fact, I would take this even further and say that Louise's words, her thoughts, reflect the dilemma of all groups that don't 'fit' in automatically into mainstream society - not just the deaf community, but also the blind, the spastic, the autistic, the artist, be it the poet, the writer, or even the dancer, who refuses to play by the rules, and instead seeks to forge a new and unique path in creative expression.

I think one of the fundamental issues that concern all of us here is the relentless squeeze on legitimate space to work and express ourselves, and to be recognized as unique and productive human beings. Our world is being increasingly homogenized. One of the consequences of this movement is that our tolerance for the 'different', for the 'outsider' is being steadily eroded, and we either dismiss them or worse still, ignore their very existence.

While in my own work this attitude has become something like akin to background noise - you only notice it there when it is switched off - my work with the deaf has brought it back to the foreground. Here is a community of people, as varied as any other, as talented, as unique, with perhaps more to share with the world than any of us. And yet they remain largely unseen, ignored, perhaps I could even say unheard.

My own journey of discovery of this unique community began quite by chance. Brief, though intense encounters with the Action Players, a hugely talented group of actors, and now dancers, in Kolkata led to a growing interest in the world of the deaf. I was deeply touched by the commitment they brought to their work, and the sense of bhakti they came to me with. The initial encounter was filled with contradictory feelings in my mind. Years of conditioning made me unthinkingly treat them with kid gloves. I was tempted to give them big margins - after all, I thought, they were disabled. But somewhere within me, the professional dancer's instinct prevailed. I wanted them to be as good as anyone else. To be true performers, to be judged on the same level as their hearing peers. So I pushed them to excel, to go beyond the limitations of their condition. And they responded like true artists, trusting the exacting process and emerging winners at the end. This taught me an important lesson. What was wanted was not condescension, nor pity, nor charity. All it took was recognition of their real worth, their real desire - to be given legitimate space along with their peers in mainstream society.

Sometimes when the space you desire is not forthcoming in the natural course of things, you have to go out and stake your claim. It is not easy because it takes away valuable time from your work, it means dealing with the hard world of commerce and economics. But I realize it has to be done and to facilitate this movement, a group of close friends and well wishers have joined hands with me to set up the Astad Deboo Dance Foundation. The primary aim of this Foundation is to create space for collaborations and explorations with differently abled communities such as the deaf, and also with my own peers from the world of music, plastic arts and folk traditions. The Foundation is still young, fledgling, but full of hope and inspiration for the journey ahead.

It is against this background that this evening I wish to express my deep gratitude to Siemens for walking with me, for helping me navigate this difficult, uneven road. Your generous offer of hearing aids is valuable in itself, but honestly I see the gesture as far more symbolic. I will make bold to speak on behalf of all of us here from the deaf community, to say, that your gesture is like an outstretched hand of friendship and recognition from the world of sound. A recognition of us as unique people with a story of our own. Listen to our story, it will make your life richer!

Lalitha Venkat is the editor of Narthaki.

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