Impressions from Bangladesh
This was the first time that a European artist had visited this unique country to work specifically with people with learning disabilities. It was a cathartic experience.
Bangladesh is a young country, it is also one of the poorest worldwide. Separated from Pakistan in 1971 it became recognised by most European and Asian countries some three months later. The change precipitated civil unrest amongst its population of 120 million. The stark result - 80 million are on the breadline, 60 million are aged 15 and below and in rural areas 43 is the average life expectancy. Importantly, ten per cent or 12 million of the population are disabled.
Yet just two schools exist for children with physical and learning disabilities, catering for some 3,000 children. Adults with learning disabilities are cared for by their families and there are no job opportunities available for them.
The children that I worked with were from The Bangladesh Protibondi Foundation based in the capital, Dhaka. A pioneering organisation screening, diagnosing, treating and rehabilitating persons with mental retardation (or learning disability as it has come to be known in the West) and cerebral palsy, and catering for some 200 children aged between five and 25. They also run an outreach programme whereby once a month the teachers work in rural areas educating parents and children.
The Foundation receives no subsidies and relies on voluntary donations and those parents who can afford the fee of four pounds a month towards their children's education. Every available space is utilised for a packed curriculum which includes reading, writing, loom weaving, block printing, tie dying, jewellery making, life skills and cooking. Creative dance was not on the agenda. However, the children do learn folk songs originating in the Bengali tradition, both from Bangladesh and West Bengal, which are accompanied by movements that suit their abilities.
This was not to deter the process nor determination of the eminent Doctor Liaquat, Director of the Sanskriti Bikash Kendra (Centre for Cultural Development) who had learnt of my work in the UK as Artistic Director of Magpie Dance, a company of dancers with learning disabilities. So convinced was he of the value of creative dance to children with learning difficulties that he constructed a 'studio' in just seven days comprising concrete walls and floor, which was covered with thick matting, and a corrugated iron roof.
The days were varied and intense. I worked with 15 children aged between five and 14 in the mornings and 15 young people aged between 14 and 18 in the afternoons. Eight teachers from the school were released from activities to enable them to see first-hand the responses of the children and young people and of course, to act as interpreters.
I freely admit that I was anxious before I left the UK. This was a new experience not just for myself, but for the children and teachers too. I do not speak Bangla and the cultural differences were marked. But my worries evaporated when I met the children. A child of about six came up to me even before I started teaching and spontaneously began stroking me under my chin. I repeated the gesture back and we became friends for the next three days! An array of props including a large parachute, ball, Iycra, ribbons and elastic were the impetus and inspiration for my work as I needed a sure-fire way of involving the children spontaneously. But I was in for a surprise. They were not used to playing or interacting through movement - having fun together, laughing and letting off steam - were not part of their life experience.
It was also to prove difficult to 'get across the idea' that the children's responses were valid and that what they offered spontaneously was valued. The props were to save the day as they afforded the young people an opportunity to put forward their ideas, to think for themselves and actually create dances together.
Sultana Zalman, the founder and General Secretary of the Foundation came in to watch a session on the first afternoon and said that she had never seen the children so animated. Two professional artists, trained in Classical Indian dance and used to performing in a rigid technique joined me. They too experienced the 'freedom' of movement we take for granted, the freedom the ribbons generated.
On the second day I introduced circle dances and partner work which encouraged the children to move concentrically in two circles whilst singing Indian Folk songs - all were moving together as one - an experience that I found deeply moving.
The sheer enjoyment the children gained from playing games with the ball and parachute and working with the ribbons enabled everyone perhaps for the first time to experience a real sense of freedom of movement. A completely new experience for both the children and teachers.
To contextualize the work I was undertaking a seminar arranged by Dr Liaquat, for anyone interested to learn more about working within this environment and the activities of Magpie Dance Company in the UK. Armed with video excerpts and photographs of the company I was able to illustrate how individuals with learning disabilities are able to initiate and take the lead in artistic development and performance.
By the end of day three it became apparent that the bond formed by working in such close proximity with one another was deep and enriching ... we were like old friends, talking about our families and the traditions of Bangladesh. It is my sincere hope that the approach and methodology intrinsic in my practice as a creative artist will flourish. Their openness and willingness to try new things was humbling. The country may be poor economically, but it is rich in humanity - from the warmth that exudes from the people and their heritage.
On the final day of my visit the children asked when I would return: "Is it tomorrow?" they asked. My only hope is that tomorrow is not too far away.
Avril Hitman made a follow up visit to Bangladesh in February 2000.
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This article, first published in the Network News, no.18 Spring 1996
is reproduced by kind permission of The Foundation for Community Dance,