Celebrating Helen Keller through Dance

A famous Zen aphorism says that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. One such student was Helen Keller and the teacher, the “miracle worker” who transformed her life, was Anne Sullivan. One of the most iconic women of all time, the story of Helen Keller and her struggle to overcome her double burden of being vision and hearing impaired is inspired and inspiring.

The inspirational factor was compelling enough for US-based Odissi exponent Dr Chitra Krishnamurti to weave together a kaleidoscopic tapestry of the life and times of Helen Keller. The warp and weft of the weave were dance (Odissi), drama, narration, DVD presentation and archival footage. The audience in the packed Lakshmi Sundaram Auditorium in Madurai watched spellbound as the eight-member troupe of Nrityalaya School of Indian Classical Odissi Dance, Washington DC, paid a tribute to one woman’s quest to triumph over her limitations. The performance was hosted by Aravind Eye Care Systems, the well-known eye care providers.

“The dark and silent world of the blind-deaf has a lot of parallels with the world of dance. Like the deaf-blind, we dancers also communicate through abhinaya (mime). I was intrigued by Helen Keller’s ability to impart so much of happiness to others. While researching on her life and times, I realised that Keller’s ability to touch and see was enhanced so much that she could ‘feel the applause and ‘smell’ flowers and birds. I was ‘crazy’ enough to embark on the project,” recalls Dr Chitra Krishnamurti, who studied the dance form with Odissi stalwarts Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and Sanjuktha Panigrahi.

Dr Chitra Krishnamurti directed and choreographed the 1 hour 45 minutes’ riveting performance. The show was impeccably presented by Mr. Krishna Murti (Chiitra’s husband).

Spurred by the spirit of her students who assured her, “If you are ‘crazy’ to do this, we are a band of ‘crazy’ girls behind you,” the teacher and students set upon the task of recreating the life of Helen Keller. Incidentally, Dr Chitra Krishnamurti, a biochemist, is Deputy Director, Office of Research Training and Minority Health, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, Bethesda, Maryland, USA. Most of the dancers are first generation Indian Americans.

The opening scene was an invocation in the traditional Odissi style. As the performance unfolded it captured significant moments in Helen Keller’s life. These included young Helen’s turbulent childhood (played admirably by the petite Kosha Parekh) and the arrival of Anne Sullivan, which was a turning point in Helen’s life. The scenes were interspersed with snippets of little-known information about Helen Keller’s life. For instance, it was the well-known scientist Alexander Graham Bell who suggested to Helen’s father that he contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind (where Anne Sullivan was teaching).

Readers of Helen Keller’s autobiography The Story of my Life will recall that the ‘great day’ in her life was the arrival of Anne Sullivan and it culminated in Helen’s realisation of the connection between word, meaning and object. Dancers Chitra Krishnamurti (Anne Sullivan) and Kosha Parekh (young Helen) recreated the magic moment when Anne Sullivan enables Helen acquire the connection between the word water, the feel of water (the famous hand pump scene), and the word w-a-t-e-r as spelt by Sullivan into Helen’s hand.

Indeed, the thematic motif of the performance was the forging of a beautiful relationship between the teacher and the taught. Helen was four years old when Sullivan entered her life. When a curious Helen asks Sullivan who she is, Sullivan finger spells “t-e-a-c-h-e-r.” Helen was 56 when Sullivan died and until then she reverentially addressed her as “teacher.”

The audience shared the joyous transformation in Helen’s life orchestrated by Anne Sullivan. One of my favourite scenes is Helen Keller’s graduation ceremony at Radcliff College—making her the first deaf-blind person to graduate magna cum laude. The poignant moment was recreated with sensitivity and insight by the dancers.

“The relationship between Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan is similar to the guru-sishya relationship in the Indian tradition,” says Dr. Neeraja Balachandar, who played the role of the older Helen, in a stellar performance. She, incidentally, is a doctor of medicine who is doing her PhD in Neurosciences at Johns Hopkins University. A major challenge she had to negotiate while preparing for the part was learning to “dissociate movement and sight and learn to look past a person, which for sighted individuals is so normal,” says Dr Neeraja Balachandar.

“If you can enjoy the sun and flowers and music when there is nothing except darkness and silence, you have proved the Mystic sense,” wrote Helen Keller. The scene where the dancers portray Helen’s ability to appreciate dawn, noon, dusk, and night, and at the end of it experience a state of oneness with the cosmos, vindicated Helen’s mystic vision.

Helen Keller was a friend of the legendary modern dancer Martha Graham. The scene where Martha Graham enables Helen to understand what “jumping” is all about was powerful and evocative. Helen’s mysticism once again emerges when she compares “jumping” to a “mind” and “thought.”

The finale of the performance was a multicultural dance sequence that symbolised the many countries Helen Keller visited to champion the cause of the visual and hearing challenged people. The dancers (Chitra Krishnamurti, Kosha Parekh, Neeraja Balachandar, Aditi Kolhekar, Anjana Mohanty, Maanasi Mistry, Sanchari, and Neha Agarwal) portrayed Helen Keller’s crusade for an inclusive world without barriers and boundaries through imaginative and exuberant use of multicultural dances. These included Japanese (fan dance), modern dance (Martha Graham), Spanish (Flamenco), South African (mine dance), England (the country dance) and India (dandiya of Gujarat).

Mary Munson, an American in the audience who had met Helen Keller, remarked that meeting her was like being in a “powerful presence of energy.” That was the very energy that flowed through dancers who were mere instruments in unfolding the life of a truly remarkable woman.