Moves that heal

Moves that heal

Moves that heal

Dance is regarded as the oldest form of body language, and a means to express feelings. But it can also be explored as a tool for change, in individuals and in society, as many contemporary dancers believe.

Sohini Chakraborty of Kolkata believes that dance can be a therapy to deal with mental scars, and can imbibe confidence in those who are withdrawn due to psychological traumas. So, she has founded the NGO Kolkata Sanved (2004), which loosely translates to ‘sensitivity’. Using Dance Movement Therapy (DMT), she and her team try to bring a new meaning to the life of victims of violence and trafficking, mental maladies, or those with HIV/AIDS.

They try to articulate a language through dance for those who feel marginalised by hostile circumstances. Survival has different meanings for different people, Sohini points out. For example, girls rescued from prostitution and victims of sexual abuse suffer acutely from a sense of shame. Through DMT they are encouraged to emerge out of the feeling that ‘my body is impure’ and made to believe that ‘I am creating my own body through my own expression.’

“I believe it’s a respecting process we go through when we use dance as a therapy. We respect each other as human beings, without discrimination of any kind,” Sohini asserts. She is proud that the trainers at Kolkata Sanved have emerged from deprived circumstances themselves. She emphasises that rehabilitation programmes for women should look beyond what is thought to be traditional skills — like tailoring, handicrafts etc.

Before the training

For teaching tools, the Kolkata Sanved explores materials from all sources, not depending on objects to be imported from abroad, like stretch clothes. The trainers hunt the sports shops and pick up things like fitness rolling balls and power band sets — to provide hands more flexibility — even sarees, to break out from inhibitions. Both boys and girls participate together in the workshops.

Sohini’s training as a dancer and her studies in Sociology influenced her approach to dance as something more than a performing art.

She was once associated with Rangakarmee, a well-known Hindi theatre group of Kolkata. One of its productions, Beti Ayee (A Girl Is Born) focussed on discrimination against the girl child. “It affected me profoundly. I was toying with the idea of doing something different with dance to project this problem, but didn’t know how to go about it,” Sohini recalls.

Another reason for this search was her experience while working with shelter homes that housed girls rescued from trafficking. Incidentally, West Bengal is a hub for girl-trafficking in eastern India. “One of the special papers for my studies was Criminology and so I was familiar with the problem. But I wanted to meet these inmates — victims of some form of crime or the other,” she reasons.

In 1996, Sohini volunteered to work with Sanlaap, an NGO that works with rescued girls, teaching dance as her core activity. While teaching them both classical and contemporary dance movements, she felt frustrated that she failed to communicate with them. She started experimenting so that they would open up. “I asked them to begin with simple movements, like posing like a tree in their own way.” The change in the participant’s body language surprised her. She also took the girls to theatre performances, with permission from the shelter home, to expose them to a world they were unfamiliar with.

At that time Sohini did not know anything about DMT, which was emerging in the West. But in her own way she made tentative attempts to help them to articulate their inner feelings, and was getting results.

She also learnt about  legendary contemporary dancers like Martha Graham, Rudolf Laban and Marian Chace, who had introduced dance as a therapy in some American hospitals in the 1940s; as well as the works of the American Dance Therapy Association established in 1966. The dance therapists found that some healing happened in a student’s psyche through improvisation of movements.

Future is bright

In India, Tripura Kashyap, a trained Bharatanatyam dancer from Bengaluru, was one of the first dancers to spread the idea of DMT. She encouraged Sohini to continue her experimentation with DMT.

Today, Kolkata Sanved works in tandem with 30 organisations, focusing on a range of subjects such as human rights,  education and mental health. Going beyond borders, it works with organisations in Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand etc. It holds workshops in rural locations, collaborating with outreach groups who are already working with the community.

It has not been easy to get recognition for dance therapy as a method to fight mental blocks and allow participants to achieve self-expression. “People thought it was just another form of dancing. We make it a point to say our aim is not to make just ‘pretty dancers’,” she says. In fact, Sohini admits, it was only after she got the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003 for innovative use of dance that people started to look at her work as more than a form of contemporary art.

Kolkata Sanved has a curriculum based on the technique it has developed, called the Sampurnata (fulfillment). Sohini’s dream is to establish an institute drawing on all these experiences and learning processes to help the unspoken words find a voice through dance.

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