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Merajur Baruah On ‘The Deep Rising’ That Explores Performance Art For The Disabled

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By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

Editor’s Note: As part of our coverage of PSBT’s Open Frame Film Festival And Forum 2015 in Delhi (15th-22nd Sept), Youth Ki Awaaz will be featuring interviews with the directors who are screening their films at the festival, along with a candid chat later with the organisers who make this excellent festival possible each year. With this year’s theme being ‘DIVERSE PEOPLE, DIVERSE STORIES’, the documentaries being screened include “those that document, narrate, follow, investigate, represent, challenge, advocate, affirm, empower, unsettle and sometimes disturb.” Scroll down for schedule details.

The dominant ideas of ability can be affirmed by society, and subsequently applauded, only when whatever this domain of ability lacks is ascribed to the “disabled”. That is why we have – even with the advancement of medical sciences – continued to create public spaces and institutions that disable those who do not possess the qualities of those enabled by norm. Merajur Rahman Baruah explores this question in ‘The Deep Rising’, a 2015 documentary film on the dance troupe artists of Ability Unlimited.

Although the artists find a way to lead a dignified life, have risen out of what Baruah calls “the vortex of disability”, with applause and approbation from their neighbours and friends, one wonders whether this would have happened for those who wished to remain in the traditional school system. In an email Q&A with Youth Ki Awaaz, Merajur Rahman Baruah talked briefly about his documentary and the questions that must be posed to those who ‘disable’. Here are some edited excerpts:

Abhishek Jha (AJ): The discourse on disability has changed significantly since the WHO adopted the UPIAS definition of disability, which perceives disability as being imposed by the society’s norms and practices. Why do you think the disabled have to look for vocational training for being integrated into the society?

Merajur Rahman Baruah (MRB): Well disability could perhaps be seen from as a form of social oppression that operates at both at the public and personal level. We often consider the differently-abled people as a sort of liability, and we either have an attitude of apathy towards them or at times we are, perhaps, sympathetic. Unfortunately, the 70 million differently-abled people in India confront relentless segregation, discrimination, and stereotypes because they are believed to be incapable of leading a productive life. This potentially leaves most of the disabled people feeling worthless and ashamed.

If we evaluate the notion of disability in the light of a larger spectrum of ‘identity and dignity’ and initiate a dialogue with differently-abled people we find that they never seek mercy from the society rather demand opportunity, whereby they could live a dignified and productive life.

We often ask that “Why do the disabled have to look for vocational training for being integrated into the society?”
I deeply pondered over the question and it struck me that the socio-economic, political, and cultural milieu purposely isolates the differently-abled people, pushing them into an exclusive category.

Given the situation, they have to walk really hard and an extra mile to achieve the bare minimum in life. They are often rejected or dissuaded either in educational institutions or in the job market for merely being physically challenged without even considering or appreciating their intellectual ability. They relentlessly suffer due to our apathetic and conditioned mind.

So one way of expressing their ability is through art and in the cultural domain and they find solace in the field of art practices. However, art also has therapeutic effects, effectively healing them. Moreover, performing elevates, enables, and empowers the specially disadvantaged people to go through life with dignity. Because through the form of art they find ways to raise their voice and solve the problem of exclusion and “We” & “They” dichotomy.

Nevertheless, I am not arguing that they only choose art as a means to their end. I feel comfortable to talk about it because my film deals with people who are accomplished performing artists.

However, I don’t agree with the premise that the differently abled people only resort to vocational training for being integrated into the society. We have plenty of exemplary examples in India where they have outshone in different fields, surpassing all barriers.

AJ: The characters feel empowered through art. However, most of the people only turned to art in hopelessness and after being repeatedly discriminated against in their neighbourhood and schools. Is there a danger- in applauding their artistic talent- of forgetting their desire and those of other disabled people who are discriminated against to pursue education?

MRB: The characters of my film ‘The Deep Rising’ represent the larger reality about the relentless discrimination and contemptuous attitude of people towards the differently-abled people in the country. However, my approach to reflect the reality through their testimonies is not to discourage the huge community whom we often consider as the “Other”. Rather, the narrative attempts to highlight how these artists have transformed their disability to their advantage having trained under Guru Syed Sallauddin Pasha, who is considered as the father of therapeutic theater in India.

Having followed the troupe for a long span of time and having discussed, with the artists, a plethora of issues, I feel that any kind of encouragement motivates them to excel in life. Moreover, the artists from the troupe continue to interact and inspire the differently-abled people, especially students in various schools across the country. They also conduct motivational workshops in various schools regularly. These workshops help to bring about an attitudinal change not only among the students of differently-abled people but also people who are not physically challenged.

Undoubtedly, the success of the artists from the Ability Unlimited troupe encourages the young students to set targets for themselves in a wide range of fields and work hard to pursue and achieve their ambition in life.

AJ: It was interesting to note that you also show Vijay’s married life. Why isn’t there any talk of the sexuality of disabled people without pitying/undermining them?

MRB: When I portray Vijay and his wife in the film, my idea is to reflect that differently people live a normal life. I have also shown Vijay’s son, which metaphorically and euphemistically reflects their normal sexual life, which is further reinforced by Vijay’s wife when she says that despite stiff resistance from her parents and other villagers she chose to marry Vijay and she is quite happy being with him as his wife.

AJ: While some will see your film as documenting how enabling conditions can remove disabilities, a lot of people in this country and elsewhere will see it as the story only of their personal strength and ‘extraordinary’ capability, while the only ‘special condition’ here is the disability that the society itself imposes. How does one address this?

MRB: Well I see the very notion of disability as merely a state of mind of the people who are not physically challenged. So I strongly feel that there is urgent need to change our attitude towards this silent minority. The larger society has to alter their conditioned psyche and adopt an inclusive approach. It therefore, requires completely giving up an apathetic or sympathetic attitude. We must realize that the differently-abled people don’t need mercy but seek opportunity, which must come with some sort of affirmative action.

Catch Baruah’s film at 10.00 am, 19th September, at the India International Centre, on Max Müller Marg, New Delhi.

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