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|June 26, 2002|
The Rediff Special/ Anita Bora
The sun is shining down fiercely on the Bandra promenade in mid-west Mumbai.
On the seafront, there is a small stage with some seating space around it. Sixteen children of different shapes and sizes are rehearsing on the stage. They seem to be unaware of the heat as they concentrate on getting their moves right.
Even the sounds of cars whizzing past, the annoying honks of the auto-rickshaws, don't bother them. But that is because they cannot hear these noises.
They look at the young man, Kabir, instructing them from the sidelines. He motions to one of the children that he is not getting it right. He then gets on to the stage and enacts how he wants that particular step done.
I introduce myself to Kabir, who is now wiping the sweat off his brow. As he sits down to talk to me, a gaggle of street children mob him for autographs on little chits of torn paper. Kabir (who doesn't use a surname) sportingly banters with the kids and I find out that he is better known as Karan from the television serial Shagun.
So how did an actor come about to direct 16 hearing impaired kids for a street play?
It all started when Kabir, along with friend and fellow actor Sohaib Hassan, went to the Bajaj Institute of Learning for the Deaf and, after an interaction with the kids, decided to do something with them. What started as an idea for a workshop germinated into a street play with deaf children.
The basic aim is to groom these children to enact plays so that they can eventually form a theatre group and then write, direct and act in their own plays and perform across the country. This will also enable them to earn a livelihood.
Both Kabir and Sohail did not have any experience with sign language prior to this experience. But Kabir tells me he did not find it a challenge to pick it up. Looking at him 'talking' with the children is proof enough.
"We have been practising for about one-and-a-half months now," says Kabir. Both actors have taken time out from their schedules to bring this whole effort together.
The kids have done one complete run on the promenade and Kabir and Sohaib decide to move back to their usual practice place, the Pali Hotel at Bandra.
We pile into Kabir's comfortable four-wheel drive. Four of the girls in the back seat are talking to each other without words, breaking into giggles every once in a while.
At the hotel, they all bite into hot vada pavs (potato patty in a bun) and I meet Neena Hazrat, who is coordinating the music for the play. Neena and her husband, Rajiv Hazrat, are actively involved with the school for the deaf that has been set up by the Bajaj Institute of Learning in Dehradun.
The kids are having a discussion with Sohaib. I try and make sense of what they are saying. There are hands moving up and down and they use their eyes expressively. They tell him something and laugh. I realise I am the one with the handicap now.
The youngest of the kids is 13-year-old Tejinder Sidhu who is acting as an element of nature -- the Moon. Kabir spotted him while he was working along with his father in a watch repair shop. "At first I thought he was just a quiet kid since he never spoke. It was only later that I realised he was deaf," says the actor.
Tejinder, who was initially studying in a normal school, was taken out when his parents considered relocating to Delhi. Now, says Tejinder's mother, none of the schools are ready to admit him because of his handicap. When he was at a normal school, he had even started speaking a few words. Like any other youngster of his age, he loves to dance and is a Hrithik Roshan fan.
The rest of the kids are from the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute for the Hearing Impaired and the Sanskardham Vidyalaya.
The oldest of the group is Gopal and he is playing the role of the evil destroyer. This 28-year-old partially lost his hearing when he had pneumonia at the age of 14.
I ask one of the girls, Heena -- Gopal is now playing the roles of my translator -- what she has enjoyed most about this experience.
She exclaims loudly and answers with her hands. I do not need words to understand her excitement. Gopal, meanwhile translates her gestures into words -- she says she is having a lot of fun and has also developed a stronger degree of self-confidence. The others nod vigorously, agreeing with what she has just said.
Will you do it again, I ask? "Yes," they all say unanimously and look towards Sohaib and Kabir with broad smiles on their faces. It is obvious they have formed strong bonds in the short while they have been working together.
Sohaib tells me he was initially apprehensive about relating to the kids, but his fears were unfounded. It was not long before he was communicating comfortably with them. He does not know formal sign language either. "I've worked with a lot of kids during my days in Delhi. Street plays, the theatre, but I've never worked with deaf kids," he says.
Now in the hotel courtyard, Sohaib makes sure that the music is in sync, while Kabir keeps an eye on their expressions. There is one part of the music Kabir is not happy with. The children, however, are totally oblivious. They are acting to their own music. There is a light drizzle and Sohaib starts wondering if they should move back into the hotel. He doesn't want any damage to the kids' hearing aids. But it's only a false alarm.
Sipping hot tea in the courtyard, Kabir and Sohaib seem happy with their team's performance. Tomorrow at 4 pm, they indicate in sign language, as the children disperse one by one, tired but happy.
The Big Day
There is a large crowd in the Bandra promenade, which as been lighted up for the occasion. There are banners to attract the passing crowds, including evening joggers.
The whole event has been put together by Deeds, a non-profit organisation that generates revenue for the Bajaj Institute.
I spot Sohaib, who escorts me inside. There is small performance by a couple of singers before the play begins. The kids sit on the side and are waiting patiently to get on-stage.
Kabir and Sohaib do a little act together. Sohaib then takes his position in front of the stage where the children can see him for their cues. Since they cannot hear the music, they rely on his hand movements.
The play is called Silent Talk and the children, using only pantomime and natural acting, convey the message about how mankind's greed is eroding the environment and destroying the earth. Kabir and Sohaib have decided against using a voiceover as it would dilute the effort of the children.
About 25 minutes long, the play goes without a hitch, except for a few minutes where there is no music. For us onlookers, it is like watching silent television. For the children, this is their world. Neena tells me later that the children improvised a little bit and, while the music for that segment had ended, they decided to add a few steps of their own!
They get a generous applause after their performance. Popular Hindi film director David Dhawan congratulates each actor personally and they all are presented with gifts on stage. Kabir and Sohaib look relieved that their effort has been well-received and appreciated.
The kids are even more thrilled with the photo sessions after the show. It is their moment of glory and their enjoyment is apparent from the wide smiles on their faces. Tejinder's mother, who is beside her son, is beaming with happiness, proud of his efforts.
Kabir is surrounded by young female fans asking for his autograph. I meet Kapil Malhotra, businessman and Deeds volunteer. "There are lawyers, doctors, businessmen and even a bus conductor who help bring this whole effort together," he says.
According to statistics provided by the Bajaj Institute, India has over 16.5 million handicapped children of whom over 3.5 million are speech or hearing impaired. Eighteen out of 20 deaf children never make it through school.
Deeds has therefore funded a school for the hearing impaired in Dehradun. It helps students prepare for the 10th standard exams with the National Open School curriculum. It also offers vocational training in computers, tailoring and electrical fields. It is currently launching a fund raising programme to build a hostel on the campus. These funds will allow the institute to open its doors to the deaf from all over the country.
Kabir has already started looking ahead, beyond this initial effort. He tells me about his wish to do a commercial play with deaf actors sometime in the near future. Sohaib wants to tackle the subject of child labour for their next play.
As I leave the excited kids posing for the camera, I feel lucky I have been able to share their world for a few hours. Not only do we need more institutes like BIL, we also need more people like Kabir and Sohaib to ensure that God's special children get the future they really deserve.
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