A group of bright-faced, colourfully dressed young girls comes on stage and does a perfectly coordinated Bharatanatyam piece. The grace of movement and facility with facial expression of the girls cannot be faulted; especially since none of them have had any previous classical dance training whatsoever. The girls glide off stage, more children do various folk dances on the celebration of rural festivals. The dancers' rhythm and synchronisation rarely falter - or at least, no more than normal.

But by now, the viewer has realised that something about this performance is a trifle different from most others. For one thing, two girls in bright Kanjeevaram saris are standing discreetly, but noticeably at each corner at the front of the stage, facing the dancers. Using signs to indicate the various movements, they are marking the beat with their fingers. When the karagam and kummi dancers come on stage, one sees that most of the children have large, heavy callipers binding their little legs. One realises that all the children are handicapped, in one way or another. They are performing a dance ballet, Sankara, at the Nehru Centre Auditorium, under the auspices of the Indian Society for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped (ISRH), a voluntary support organisation that aids handicapped individuals and organisations that work for them.

Of course, a production of this sort, however effortless it may appear at the end, means a lot of hard work. The storyline and the script, were ready by July and tells the tale of Adi Sankara. Little Sankara, who belongs to an orthodox Brahmin family is saved from drowning by the untouchable Adi. When Sankara (played by Raju) is disturbed at being touched by Adi (Abhijit), his mother (Meera) consoles him with stories from the past that demonstrates the meaninglessness of the caste system. After July, Guru Rajee Narayan took over. Choreographing done, the guru and four of her senior students, Deepa and Vidya Narayan, Kesari Rao and Mala Subrahmaniam (who also provides female voiceovers), took on the painstaking job of training the children. The result is unique not only in that it is rare for so many categories of the handicapped to perform together, but that it isn't often that care is taken to extract such a thoroughly professional effort.

And professional the performers clearly are. After one has got over the initial heartbreak of watching little ones fling their callipered legs up in joyous, rhythmic abandon, the fact of the performers' disabilities becomes irrelevant. What remains is the grace, the involvement and sincerity, the real depth of feeling that the children put into the performance. And their presence of mind could cause many veteran performers envy. One little boy whose new special shoes skidded on the freshly polished stage, flinging him flat on the floor, got up quickly without a change of expression and continued dancing vigorously. Their awarness of their own handicaps makes them very sensitive to those of others too, the organisers have noticed. In the Ramayana production when a blind Sita falling at Rama's feet, landed slightly off-position, the deaf-mute Rama slid imperceptibly along the stage till he was directly in front of her.

The opportunity to work with and even help others has brought many of the participants out of their own cocoons of bitterness or self-pity. They have learnt to relate to and trust society at large. Meena Bhat, a sufferer of Down's Syndrome who does brilliant rendering of a rich, unfeeling zamindar in Sankara, used to be "such an introvert, so uncommunicative" earlier, Narayan remembers. Now she is tremendously self-assured.

The production, which has cost about Rs. 1.5 lakh so far, may be repeated in a couple of months; potential sponsors have even offered to help take it on the road. And for the 30 to 50 individuals participating in this, and other similar productions, as well as for those training them, or viewing them, life is perhaps a little more meaningful afterwards.

Feb 22 - Mar 06, 1990. Bombay