When Gulshan Kumar was 8 years old, he dreamt of being on television and in newspapers. Twelve years later, his sisters’ friends see his face in newspapers and have the same dream. This would be a heartening success story of any poor boy in India. It is an outright miracle for a boy born with polio. A young man who now supports his family by dancing for a living.
This is a true story of incredible Indians achieving incredible dreams, living in a society that doesn’t afford them the luxury of believing that they are equal citizens.
Kumar who originally hails from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh developed polio when he was 9 months old. His parents were determined to save him from a life defined by disability. They moved to Delhi to seek treatment, visiting numerous hospitals but to no avail. They soon lost hope.
“After going to many hospitals with me and seeing no change, my parents also thought that I will not be able to live like a normal human being,” he told Firstpost.
They were right, in a sense. Kumar still can’t walk properly. He can, however, twirl, swirl, and soar.
He is today a well-known artiste and an integral member of Ability Unlimited’s dance troupe which performs across the country and around the world. And he owes his success to a unique arts organisation committed to transforming the lives of differently abled children.
Headed by National Award winner Guru Syed Sallauddin Pascha, the Ability Unlimited Foundation works with differently abled children like Kumar to hone their talents and provide vocational training in the arts so that they can live a life of dignity and fully participate in society.
The foundation on Thursday announced the launch of its first therapeutic centre in Muhiddinpur Dabarsi, a village in Ghaziabad, UP. The centre, which is spread over 60,000 square feet and includes a residential facility for 150 differently abled students, is devoted to targeting those in most need of their unique education.
“While our cities have many facilities for the differently abled, there are none in our villages which is where 70 percent of such persons live,” said Pascha. “I am from a small village in South India and I have seen the handicapped being mistreated. When a girl in our village was getting married, her disabled brother was chained in the house so as to not allow him to participate in the wedding. Parents and the girl’s family were embarrassed and scared that if he did the wedding would be called off.”
The Centre will offer three and five year diplomas in Art, including majors in music, theater, dance, painting and photography, lighting and designing, and filmmaking. Most children at the school also complete the formal school curriculum through the National Open School, but are taught concepts of formal education using the therapeutic method.
“If we have to teach the children addition or subtraction we don’t just write them on the board and say 1 + 1 = 2. We give them a situation like one dancer comes onto stage and performs and he is joined by another dancer. Now, they dance as a team of two. We don’t tell, we make them imagine, to aid their learning,” says Pascha. “It’s a unique combination of dance, music, colour, costume, music therapy, theater therapy and dance therapy to help them realize their value and potential in society and amongst their family, and society, so that they can create their own identity. A distinct and confident identity.”
Ability Unlimited has 150 students and a total of 20 tutors and special educators, including guest lecturers, and it is hoping to hire at least another 20. The broad spectrum of techniques and mediums employed ensures that “if one kind of therapy fails the others act as a buffer,” says Pascha.
And the customised teaching of students focuses on strengthening the skills they possess rather than focusing on areas of weaknesses.
When Kumar first attended a dance workshop held by Pascha, he was the 8-year-old son of poor dhobi parents, who were skeptical about sending their differently abled son to dance training — and of his dreams of making it big.
“I saw my chance in this [dance workshop] and after that I told Guruji that I want to join him,” Kumar told Firstpost. Pascha’s requests to allow their son to attend dance classes initially fell on deaf ears, but after several attempts, they finally gave in.
Then a 10 year old Kumar debuted in his first full-fledged dance production in New Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium. His performance was well covered in the press and won him the whole hearted encouragement of his parents. Three years later, he embarked on his first international tour to the US and UK.
Today Kumar’s parents are grateful to Pascha and proud of their son’s achievements. A child expected to be a family burden is now in fact their strongest support. Kumar today earns an average of Rs 15,000 a month as salary plus bonuses based on shows and performances. He makes more than what both his parents earn as dhobis. “Thanks to Pascha Guruji and the training I have been given, I am self sufficient, employed and a fulfilled human being now,” he told Firstpost.
His dream life is full of unintended ironies, says Kumar with a smile, “At a show where I once essayed the role of Krishna, people after the show were coming and touching my feet. Never had I imagined that my polio stricken legs would be given so much respect.”
Watch the performance of Ability Unlimited dancers, in a show titled ‘Bharatnatyam on Wheelchairs’.
This piece was written for Firstpost.com