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Versatile Artist Uses Theatre to Teach Special Children in India

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The young girl loved dancing and singing. So when young Ambika was asked to help out with the annual day dance presentation at the Ramana Academy for the Visually Impaired in Bangalore, she took up the challenge enthusiastically.

There Ambika was in for a surprise. She had anticipated that the task would be tough but the experience of teaching a visual art like dance to visually challenged students turned out to be overwhelming and rewarding.

Even as a little girl, Ambika could see that there was more to dancing and singing than just performing, and the experience at the academy only reinforced this belief. Ambika continued teaching dance to the visually challenged girls, even after the annual day celebrations.

Two years later, marriage to Gowrishankar Kameshwar, a software engineer, brought Ambika to Chennai and into contact with Poonam Natrajan, her sister-in-law, who was at the time setting up the Spastics Society of India (now named Vidyasagar) in Chennai. Ambika began volunteering time at the Centre, which helped her understand the needs of the children better. It was here that she started using theatre as a rehabilitative tool for special children.

"At that time, I never thought of it as rehabilitation therapy. I just wanted to use dance and music to empower children," she says.

Later, she consulted speech, mobility and occupational therapists, studied more on the subject, undertook some experimental work, and documented and analysed the effects. Slowly, by trial and error, she developed a system of rehabilitation that used dance, music, theatre, crafts and games to improve the motor co-ordination, cognitive development, language, communication and social skills of special children. This routine worked wonders with the children and many schools with special pupils began seeking Ambika's rehabilitation expertise.

Next, Ambika set up a centre to rehabilitate special children by THD. Being a great believer of Ramana Maharishi, she registered the centre as RASA - Ramana Sunritya Aalaya or Ramana Temple of Cosmic Dance - in September 1989. "I draw a lot of inspiration from Ramana Maharishi. He lived a life of love and totality and related to the whole cosmos - whether it was a person or an ant. Understanding people and accepting them for what they are comes from this oneness with the universe," she muses.

The response to RASA was phenomenal, and in 2004, RASA HOME was started with two residents, where adult boys with special needs were taught to cook, clean, shop and manage a home independently.

Now, RASA even offers a one-year post-graduate diploma programme in CME for people interested in working with special children. Observes Rekha Ramachandran, mother of Babli Ramachandran, a student of Ambika, "My daughter has improved physically and mentally and she now sees herself as an individual with a great talent. RASA has redefined many special lives." Incidentally, Ramachandran also happens to be the founder of Down's Syndrome Association of Tamil Nadu.

At RASA, theatre is a great healer and a teaching tool. Explains Ambika, "Children cry at the sight of a physiotherapist, but they run forward when a theatre teacher walks in, because learning happens in a joyful way here; it is not exercise, speech or mobility therapy; but all of it is happening. Instead of asking a child to repeat words or do exercises, we teach a story through music and dance."

Ambika is also particular that the children get exposure to the real world and so she ensures that they go to weddings, restaurants or the beach to help them interact with people in a social setting.

Theatre makes for a wholesome educative tool as well. Elaborates Ambika, "Children learn to speak better, communicate better, relate to a group, wait for their turn and not speak out of turn. Every skill needed to live a wholesome life is there in theatre, and Indian theatre with its deeply ingrained music and dance elements is the highest altar of theatre."

Of course, all of RASA's wonderful therapeutic programmes are absolutely free of cost, though they do accept donations from well-to-do parents. Finances, however, is a perpetual challenge. RASA raises funds from individuals and corporate groups, besides doing shows and marketing the craftwork that the kids make at the centre. Also, being a sought-after singer, Dr Ambika Kameshwar also cuts music albums, the proceeds of which are channeled to RASA.

Having performed in Holland, Switzerland, UK, USA, Canada, countries in Southeast Asia, among others, Ambika - who has been honoured with many awards like the Bharatha Kala Ratna, Stree Ratna award and Pancharatna Award - gives dance performances, runs a dance school, conducts workshops and lecture demonstrations to spread the word about her therapies.

RASA's success is not just because its creations involve the Four Es (Explore, Experience, Express and Enjoy); it is not just because some of its students have switched to mainstream education and even got jobs; its success lies in getting hundreds of special children to find joy in theatre and begin to hold their heads high.

Ambika sums it up, "Nobody in the world is spared trauma, I think. But if you see a purpose behind it, transcend it without getting carried away by it and understand that we are beyond both joy and sorrow...that is life."

(RASA can be contacted at 1/1, Abhiramapuram 1st Street, Chennai - 600 018. Ph: 044-24997607/044-65281970. Email: rasa_india@yahoo.com. Website: www.rasaindia.org)

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