My date with some perfect people

The number 21 Down’s Syndrome chromosome

Down’s Syndrome as described by the Down’s Syndrome Association is “a genetic condition caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21 in the body’s cells, it is not a disease. In the majority of cases, Down’s syndrome is not an inherited condition.” The website goes on to mention that “the most important thing to remember is that everyone with Down’s syndrome is a unique individual.” It made me wonder “but aren’t we all unique individuals in our own ways? What does set apart a person with Down’s Syndrome from the rest of the community? Or does nothing set them apart but we believe they are different?”

Most of the times, these descriptions, words and definitions are black and white mazes to me. I appreciate the people who have read and understood important medical reports and articles,  have figured out ways and means of communicating complex technical terms and jargons in a simple manner – the relentless work of the people behind the scenes are commendable but somehow these still remain complex constructs to me. Till the morning of 28th September when I understood the actual impact of these definitions, and the puzzle unfolded.

I was walking around the South Asia Gallery of the British Museum, known as Room 33, with Praneti Kulkarni. She had just completed her Masters in Narrative Environments from Central Saint Martins  and preparing to return to India and work there. Praneti and I were discussing the nuances of gallery design and narratives in the context of Indian history at the British Museum. We were trying to unravel stories within stories from the fine sculptures on display in this gallery. They spanned the entire history of Indian Civilisation from Prehistoric copper implements, Indus Valley seals and figurines, to Gupta terracotta, Pala large black stone  sculptures, and Chola bronzes. And, then I came to the beautiful Nataraja figure and told Praneti that this is one sculpture whose iconography and story that I would never be able to tell anyone because I never completely comprehended it. We shared our nice quick laugh over it and moved on to the next artefact.

The 11th century Chola bronze Nataraja, British Museum

Just then Jane Samuels, the Access & Equality Manager of the British Museum, walked in and asked us if we understood the artefacts on display and if we could talk to a group of dancers. It would be good for them if we could talk about the mudras or hand gestures in some of the sculptures. We readily accepted, considering this the first practical step from our storytelling discussion. But we explained that since either of us was not a historian or an art historian our perspective would be different. Jane thanked us profusely and then introduced us to a group of 10 people 5 of whom had Down’s Syndrome, the rest were escorting them. I don’t want to speak for Praneti but I was speechless as we rarely come across people with Down’s Syndrome in public spaces in India, knew only one person from my childhood who had it and had no idea that such people could dance. Suddenly I heard Jane mention that she was lucky that we were around and could explain the Nataraja sculpture to them! I was perplexed how I could even explain any sculpture to anyone, forget mudras and absolutely not the Nataraja. I turned to tell Jane that we could move to a less complicated figure and found the entire group facing me, and to my shock I realised that I was actually standing in front of the Nataraja! Perhaps this was my moment of the destruction that Nataraja’s famous Tandava dance is interpreted as… but creation is inherent in that. Praneti had by this time melted in the shadows so I didn’t really have any choice but to go on.

Interpreting Nataraja to the group

Facing the group, standing in the presence of the Nataraja I tried my best to interpret mudras, Indian dance and music, their coexistence with Indian religious customs and rituals and social traditions. After this brief introduction I got no response and thought I had failed. I felt miserable but reminded myself that since creation is not far away I should try a different approach to the interpretation. Now, I started talking about more personal comparisons, trying to show the gestures with my own hands. That slowly worked and there was a faint smile on one face 🙂 That was it, spurred on with enthusiasm I continued for the next 10 minutes with giggles and mimicry. Now leaving Nataraja behind me I pointed to the seated Buddha statue in the dharmachakrapravartana mudra or the hand gesture which symbolises that the Buddha is teaching and explained the other mudras of Buddha.

By the end of the 15 minute session the audience was laughing and imitating the gestures, after all they were dancers. Most importantly they could connect to a little part of Indian history narrated by an ignorant interpreter, not well explained in its entire art historical and iconographic context.  What was interesting was how an old image of a dancing god from an unknown culture could reach out to a group of people who have special abilities but are mostly marginalised and discarded in all societies. I have heard numerous stories of how women should conceive before they turn 35 else they would give birth to children with Down’s Syndrome and then the skies would fall on their heads! These stories seemed so cruel and meaningless now. The innocence and confidence in the personality of this group made me feel young and happy. When the group left, all that remained was laughter and purity in the air.

The 11th century Nataraja, Chennai Museum
11th cen Nataraja face
The serene expression on Nataraja while dancing the cosmic dance

While leaving the gallery I was reminded of the reaction of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin when he saw a 11th century bronze Nataraja sculpture at the then Madras and now Chennai Museum.

To quote from his 1921 article, “what many people cannot see—the unknown depths, the core of life. There is grace in elegance, but beyond grace there is perfection.”

11th cen Nataraja snake
Details of the engraving on the snake from the same sculpture
11th cen Nataraja hair
Details of Nataraja’s matted hair flying during his dance

Nataraja trampling on ignorance depicted in a human formI don’t know if I successfully trampled upon my ignorance as gracefully as the Nataraja does in his cosmic dance of destruction and creation, but I definitely could make some unique individuals smile. Hopefully, they will remember some of the mudras and that would make them return to not only the British Museum but identify some more Indian sculptures in other collections.

Thanks to Jane, Praneti, the group and Nataraja, I have finally found the pieces to the puzzle and the way through the maze – I have possibly moved closer to the perfection Rodin experienced.

6 thoughts on “My date with some perfect people

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  1. This is a lovely- and a necessary post, PD, thank you for bringing these issues up. I’m glad you had such a profound experience… 🙂

    It’s sad that institutions in India almost close their doors on the differently enabled! 😦 We really need to work on access and consumption– like painting replicas we can touch, and “see” with our hands! It’s an attitude shift we need- from horror / discomfort, to an acceptance of difference in our behaviour and most certainly institutional conduct!


  2. I really enjoyed this post. It is heartening how some ‘disabled’ people are reclaiming their right to access and even produce culture. I saw a wonderful performance on tv by a comic with Tourette’s syndrome called Jessica Thom (Tourette’s Hero). But that goes alongside shocking stories of Paralympic athletes having to crawl on/off trains/planes due to lack of wheelchair facilities.
    So thank you PD for enhancing these visitors’ experience and I look forward to seeing your work in Indian museums in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely write up, didn’t know you had this experience while you were in London. I have come across just one kid with downs syndrome in my life, when I was growing up in Mumbai. We went for Karate classes together :).

    Didn’t get a chance to interact with him much unfortunately, and I haven’t kept in touch with his family after we left Mumbai. I can however relate to your experience, having met someone with a disability in the past. I can only imagine the happiness it fills you with when you see them responding in a way a normal person wouldn’t. Consciousness inhibits us in ways we don’t even realise, inhibitions that certain people with special needs do not exhibit. I can only imagine that the experience would’ve been surreal.

    Besides, I’ll definitely check out these artefacts if they are still on display. Thanks for penning your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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