WE WERE STANDING on a metro station platform in Noida, and Niranjani Iyer stretched an arm out and shouted, “Auto!” An imaginary auto rickshaw passed without stopping, and her arm fell to her side as she turned to watch it go, before she repeated the action. “The movements in my dances are taken from the everyday,” she explained to me.
Iyer, a dancer and performance artist, had just finished rehearsal at the Noida Deaf Society (NDS), a vocational training institute for deaf and hearing-impaired youth, where she was choreographing a short piece with students for their annual day celebrations in late February. “The whole point is that when you are deaf, you speak another language,” she said. Body movement was natural to signing, she explained, but like with speech, sign language also followed set patterns that need to be overcome while dancing.
That morning, at the NDS office, in a residential neighbourhood in Noida, a group of 20 had been hard at work on the terrace. When Iyer arrived, the group was going over the piece—performing turns, spins and walks, blending steps from classical and modern dance.
Iyer normally doesn’t decide on music before beginning choreography, but the organisers at NDS had persuaded her to make an exception this time. She had chosen the band Indian Ocean’s eight minute-long “Kandisa”, originally an ancient Aramaic prayer. “At first they wanted to do Bollywood,” she said like a strict schoolteacher, before melting into a laugh. “But I told them I won’t do it.” She did, however, get a friend to incorporate elements of hip-hop and break dance into the piece. During the rehearsals, Iyer guided the dancers through the sequence; for the final show, they would have to keep the count in their heads.
Setting up speakers for the music, Iyer turned to her dancers and, with a thumb tapping at her heart, said, “With attitude.” Repeating the gesture to me, she said, “That’s how you do ‘with attitude’. Hip-hop, and in fact dancing, is all about attitude.” During rehearsals, she relied on the staff and volunteers of the NDS to communicate with the dancers, along with the basic signs she had picked up— thumbs-up making a few small strokes at the heart to say “with feeling”, right palm gently brushing the back of the left hand for “slowly”, hands clasped for “together”.
The group had discussed the song’s lyrics and Iyer had asked the dancers to devise actions to accompany them. “Once they got the fact that I didn’t want them to sign,” she said, “I asked them to express how they felt.” The students found the seasons a rich source to draw from—Iyer gave the count as the first slow, hymnal lines emanated from the speakers, and the dancers drew in their outstretched arms, as if embracing themselves, depicting winter.
Sourabh Tiwari, a student at NDS, had always associated dance with Bollywood—but this was different. “I gave an action, someone else gave another and then another, and to tie it all up into a dance is just wow!” he said.
The NDS, headed by founder Ruma Roka, began in 2005 with five students. Gathering volunteers and funders along the way, the institute now trains over 1,000 young men and women in its five centres, including one in Rajasthan, and another in Haryana. The students, some of whom have struggled in conventional schools with little specialised guidance, learn signing, English-language communication, design and computer skills at NDS. With these skills, many later find jobs in data entry, graphic design and hospitality. While NDS prepares students for employment, it also aims to make them more confident and expressive.
Iyer’s method focuses on the gestural, on bodies propelled by their own natural rhythms, rather than rigidly schooled forms. Working with the NDS students, she said, was an extension of her own choreographic instincts. Explaining her approach, she echoed the words of one of her heroes. “Pina Bausch had said that she was not interested in how people move, but what makes them move,” she said, adding, “Everybody dances.”
Manas Roshan is an independent journalist based in Delhi.