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A show that brings alive the beauty & power of sign language in the form of dance


When you watch someone communicating in sign language, the first thing that strikes you is how visual and physically expressive it is. It can seem like a dance, given how closely facial expressions and bodily movements come together.

Say, What?, a production by contemporary dance performer Avantika Bahl and Vishal Sarvaiya, is a unique marriage of dance movements and signs.

For Avantika, it’s the end result of a fascination with a language that began when she was a child. One that led her to sign up for a course in Indian Sign Language (ISL).

“Growing up, I was fascinated by sign language. I love the fact that a whole body of communication is placed within fingertips, and the ability to have completely private conversations in public spaces between two people. who are signing. I don't have any deaf family members or friends but the urge to simply learn sign language, because in some ways it is so similar to movement, given that both are embodied in nature, drew me to sign up for classes.”

Eight months into her lessons at the Ali Javar Jung Institute for the Deaf in Mumbai, Avantika was certain that she wanted to find a way to bring together movement and sign language in a performance. She was also clear about doing this in partnership with someone who had the opposite perspective of sound.

Her ISL teacher introduced her to Vishal Sarvaiya, a deaf dancer in Shiamak Davar’s dance troupe.

For Avantika and Vishal, the process of finding a common ground was not easy. For one, Vishal was not familiar with contemporary dance language. It also took him some time to work out a way to give expression to different emotions.

It's about two individuals from two different worlds meeting each other. We did not remember language and tried to express by telling something. But then we started using sign language, one small step at a time. And in some moments we forgot communication, and we started to communicate in another way by touching different parts of our body. At last, we got back to communicating by sign language. – Vishal Sarvaiya, Deaf Dancer

Vishal and Avantika worked on the show through 2016 and when ‘Say, What?’ premiered in March 2017, the 55-minute performance evoked encouraging and enthusiastic feedback, with many calling it "one of the most exciting and important works".

"Saw Say, What? for the first time yesterday and was bowled over. It challenges our privileges by inviting us to re-examine gesture and its relationship with meaning. While at one level this is an urgent call for inclusivity, it is also a thing of real beauty. I am sure it will travel far and wide", said Mandeep Raikhy on Facebook.

Within India, the duo have performed in seven cities so far. They were invited to stage the dance at The Contemporary Dance Season at the National Centre of Performing Arts in Mumbai and at the Goethe Institute in Chennai.

“’Say, What?’ is one of the few works being performed currently that is made for and accessed by a mixed audience. To have the deaf and hearing community come together to share an experience as viewers has triggered many conversations on equal art, inclusivity, ability and privilege – topics that I believe are important to discuss in the mainstream. The deaf community feels very proud of this work and are extremely encouraging and supportive in their feedback and response!”, says Avantika.

Vishal was also voted among India’s 14 best performers for 2017 by a leading newspaper.

“I have heard one word and that ‘beautiful’ from most people. It was unbelievable. The credit goes to my partner Avantika because she discovered that sign language movements look like dancing”, says Vishal.

Vishal and Avantika are hoping to take their dance performance outside India. What makes ‘Say, What?’ so special is that it is both inclusive and helping to trigger conversations. Which makes it a show that audiences across the world would be privileged to witness.

Read the other stories in our series on the power of Indian Sign Language:

Meet the men who are bringing Indian Sign Language alive through the world of cinema



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