The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Steps to hurdle over handicaps

for the students of the Oral School for Deaf Children, Mondays are special. It is their day to break free — from the confines of the four walls of a forbidding classroom, a mechanical blackboard and a grim reality. Keeping step with them during those precious hours is Odissi dancer Sharmila Mukherjee.

Every Monday, when Sharmila makes her way to the school on Short Street, she feels she is “taking another step towards becoming a perfect dancer”. The past six years have seen her diligently training the 15-odd students of the institute in various dance forms (“not necessarily Odissi”), helping them hurdle over their handicap and even put up stage performances in Kala Mandir, Rotary Sadan and Gyan Manch.

“Somehow, rhythm is a quality that no challenged person can miss. When I first started teaching here, I was sceptical about the method of teaching. To my surprise, I found rhythm coming easily to most of them. They gradually picked up the expressions as well, but where they have gained the most is developing an individuality.”

Besides dance, Sharmila spends hours teaching them movement, posture, simple exercises and yoga. She cherishes the moments she spends with Ambrin, Prakash and the other young ones. Six years or 312 days later, Sharmila finds the association, born out of the “unshakeable” bond of performing arts, growing stronger by the week.

Sharmila, one of the senior disciples of Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra, had graduated in history from Presidency College in 1987. Since 1984, she has honed her Odissi skills under Mahapatra, besides attending workshops conducted by the late Sanjukta Panigrahi and Kalanidhi Narayan. She has been to the Dover Lane Music Conference, Calcutta, Youth Festival of Sangeet Natak Akademi, Trivandrum, and Deccan Festival, Hyderabad…

In 1997, Sharmila went to Italy for a series of performances, following it up in 2000 with a lecture-demonstration on Odissi at the University of Michigan, where she won a scholarship. Her individual performances include the one before the Duke of Kent in Calcutta, 1995, and a synthesis with Berkeley professor John Maconville. Sharmila also teaches Odissi at the Calcutta School of Music and her own school Sanjali at Ballygunge Place.

“Besides teaching dance, I also involve the students of the oral school in therapy. When danseuse Tripura Kashyap was in town recently, I made almost all my students undergo a therapy course under her supervision. For the challenged, this has a real calming effect.”

Sharmila, who teaches around 50 to 70 students, is hooked to the idea of taking up new challenges. Two months ago, a hearing-impaired girl, Sneha, made her way into her school, wanting to pick up Odissi. “She is a fast learner. When I see her dance, I feel nothing can stop her from picking up performing arts, least of all a physical handicap.”

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