Moves beyond sight: The magic of Mallakhamb performed by visually challenged artistes

Mallakhamb has been gaining popularity across the globe, thanks to experts such as Uday Vishwanath Deshpande who have been taking this ancient Indian sport to greater heights. One of history’s hardest sports, the gymnast performs feats and poses with a vertical wooden pole or rope. The sport derives its name from the words ‘malla’ which means wrestling and ‘khamb’ which means a pole.

Why are we talking about this sport? If you didn’t have a chance to drop in at The Royal Opera House on Friday, what you missed was an evening of rope and pole Mallakhamb performed by visually challenged artistes from the Kamala Mehta School for the blind. This was accompanied by electro-fusion music by contortionists from the Mallakhamb India Ensemble. Musician and composer Don Bhatt kicked off the evening with a solo set, and composed a background score for the Mallakhamb performance.

Bigger and better

Australian artistic director Benjamin Knapton, who directed the final act, has worked with Mallakhamb for three years now. “The shows we have done in Australia have been very popular with audiences and we are also now touring Budapest and Mexico City in August. The thing we do differently is that we have made a 30 minute theatrical show which is very different to the 4-5 minute presentations that Mallakhamb normally does. This longer format gives us more time to explore ideas and transform the sport of Mallakhamb into an art form of its own.”

Moves beyond sight: The magic of Mallakhamb performed by visually challenged artistes

The performance on Friday was a theatrical exploration of the sport. “The performers are physically extraordinary and have the ability to combine traditional discipline with a more contemporary feel. Donn Bhatt’s music was made specially for this show so the meeting of traditional and contemporary music, as well as traditional and contemporary movement, is really something very special,” adds Benjamin.

Moves beyond sight: The magic of Mallakhamb performed by visually challenged artistes

Practise pays off

Komal Patil and Akanksha Wakde from the Kamla Mehta School for the Blind tell us that they were in the second or the third standard when Shree Uday Deshpande started training them for rope Mallakhamb. Before this they hadn’t done rope Mallakhamb. “Going by the experience of the girls from the previous batch, we realised that there are a lot of benefits of Mallakhamb, like how it helps you to become physically and mentally strong, an improvement in our grades in school, and the respect that we gained from society. All of this made us think, even we can do better! Our parents also supported us from the beginning, that is the reason we can travel form Kanjurmarg to train at Shree Samarth Vyam Mandir, Dadar at 7pm sharp everyday,” they tell us.

Moves beyond sight: The magic of Mallakhamb performed by visually challenged artistes

Ask them about the training process, and they say, “We were a little scared at first, but Sir explained to us every jump and pose in a very nice way. He used to explain it to us in a way that we could imagine the poses and jumps and we always landed on our feet. You know how they say, ‘have blind faith’? That is exactly how we follow his instructions. He has always encouraged us by saying, ‘well done, very good etc.’ In all these years, none of the girls have fallen or have got hurt while training and performing.”

On a global platform

Benjamin explains that events like this happen over a long period of time. “It was 18 months ago that I was commissioned to make this show for the Commonwealth Games Festival 2018. Since then it has toured to Sydney Festival and Festival du Luxe performing to 15,000 people. I was fortunate to meet Asad Lalljee and Sagar Bhagat from the Royal Opera House and we discussed the possibility of this performance as the start of our first multi-city tour. Since then a lot of people have worked very hard to make this performance possible: rehearsals, planning, logistics – programmes like this take a large and passionate team, which we have.”

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