Shoma A. Chatterji

Dance is a performing art that combines grace and beauty with aesthetics, creativity and skill. Dancers and choreographers use dance as a mode of expression, which also offers holistic entertainment to the audience. Rarely is dance seen as an instrument of physical and mental rehabilitation and a medium of social change. This alternative function of dance as a way of mainstreaming people with mental and physical disabilities, or, people who are socially handicapped, is being used by Kolkata Sanved, a NGO that is constantly trying to establish itself as a Centre of Excellence for Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) in South Asia. It is registered as a Society under the West Bengal Society Registration Act.

“Ours is a pioneer organization in the field of DMT in South Asia. We use it as a means to achieve psycho-social rehabilitation, counselling, empowerment, healing and a mode of expression for victims of violence and trafficking, marginalised people, people facing mental challenges and people suffering from HIV/AIDS,” says Sohini Chakraborty, Founder-Director, Kolkata Sanved. She was speaking on the even of an entertainment programme held to celebrate World Dance Day at Goethe Institute’s Max Mueller Bhavan in collaboration with World Dance Alliance and the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre.

“Kolkata Sanved began as an experiment within a shelter home for victims rescued from trafficking and sexual abuse. This movement grew into a movement for the establishment of dance therapy as an alternate psychotherapeutic form now adopted by over 30 partner organizations in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Our Sampoornata curriculum includes processes that enable individuals to come to terms with their situation and their bodies. We have worked directly with 2500 individuals and has had an impact on not less than 5000 people,” she added.

Kolkata Sanved helps adolescent and child victims of sexual exploitation to assert their rights as individuals and to find ways for them to be able to find a place in the mainstream. It aims at building the capacity of lined institutions like NGOs and government shelter homes for professional development of victims of abuse as peer educators and activists. A group of young girls and a boy – Khateja Lhatun, Sudeshna Bag, Laxmi Khatun, Sabita Debnath, Nasima Khatun, Jhulan Sarkar, Ashley Fargnoli and Bappa Ghosh, trained in dance by Kolkata Sanved as trainee-teachers, train the inmates of other NGOs like Anjali, ApneAap Women Worldwide, All Bengal Women’s Union, Nirman-Baruipur, and New Light.

Have you ever seen a group of dynamic young boys and girls performing the bhangra with gusto? Of course you have. But they were not hearing impaired children, were they? You must never have heard of victims of cerebral palsy performing the chariot dance of the Sun God on stage, leave alone watching them dance, per se. Or, patients of a mental home, learning to extract joy out of the simple exercise of standing in a queue and throwing their hands up together to music, if they could. Special children, victims of violence, mentally challenged children, and children from the disadvantaged sections of society took to the stage to dance gracefully, with a smile on their lips, eyes shining brightly, bodies undulating, swinging this way and that, footsteps keeping time and harmony to music. All of them have learnt how dance can make a difference and change their lives. All this and more were presented to celebrate International Dance Day at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata, recently.

Kolkata Sanved works with 20 organizations and holds regular dance therapy classes at several centres across the city and suburbs. “Victims of abuse and violence, people living with HIV/AIDS, etc. are not comfortable with their bodies because they are in trauma for a long time. Nor are they comfortable with their minds. Breaking through conventional barriers of traditional counselling and therapy, Kolkata Sanved helps each individual participant of its programme reclaim her body and life through a new-found sense of freedom, peace and confidence,” explains Sohini.

“We work on a four-pronged programme that involves four areas of action –counselling, empowerment, advocacy and awareness campaigns and performances. We have developed specialized techniques that use dance and movement to build positive attitudes and body image among participants. Our therapeutic process provides a platform to discover, recognize and develop one’s individual potential. Participants, who later develop as volunteer-trainers, have the freedom to work around their own conceptions and ideas and express themselves independently. Through teamwork, encouragement and involvement of every member, each person gathers the strength and the ability to take charge of his or her own life. Many of them have turned into peer educators, thus empowering themselves to earn their livelihood through DMT,” says Khateja Latun, a peer educator herself.

Advocacy and awareness campaigns are conducted through meetings, seminars, conferences and performances in partnership with other NGOs, corporations, community-based organizations, schools, forums, dance platforms and individual dancers and dance teachers. Prreti Patel, a famous Manipuri dancer, teacher and choreographer, who has been working with her students of Anjika Centre for Manipuri Dance and Movement Therapy, says, “When I began work with these children, disabled by cerebral palsy in 1990, they were small kids. One girl could not get up from her wheelchair. Today, she travels freely in public transport and carries her cell phone with her. These are children who are born without the natural rhythm mainstream people like us are born with. I had begun with the aim of treating them towards health and well-being. 18 years on and I feel that the treatment has been on me and not on them. It is my life that is enriched.”

Alakananda Ray works with children of Inspiration Foundation, is a famous dancer-choreographer-teacher of more than 50 years standing. She has been working with prisoners of Alipur Central Correctional Home and another Correctional Home at Midnapur in Kolkata and West Bengal. “When I began training 50 men and 10 women inmates of the prison, there was no smile on a single face. Around 75% of the participants are serving life imprisonment. After some initial resistance, they warmed up. We held a show after a phase of the on-going training to great applause. This training will not change the term of their prison sentence in any way. But it has brought back that missing smile. Today, they make me smile when I am not smiling.”