"I have learnt to fly through dance," says Nasima Khatun, as she performs in a production called 'Expressions'. Her co-dancer, Sabita Debnath, invites the audience to respond: "Dance has taught me to dream: We come to you - to dream."
However, these young girls, who are in their 20s, are not conventional performing artistes. They are trainers from the NGO - Kolkata Sanved ('sanved' implies 'sensitivity' in Hindi). They guide girls and boys coming from disadvantaged circumstances to express themselves through dance, using Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) to help the youngsters shed their inhibitions. (DMT was recognised in the 1930's across the world for its therapeutic benefits.)
Sohini Chakraborty, 35, founder of Kolkata Sanved, has made extensive use of DMT. Along with her team, Chakraborty works with people under stress, facilitating them to open up, express themselves and get healed in the process. According to her, DMT encourages them to cope with their mental scars by prompting them to think, 'I am creating my own body through my own expression.'
One of the main beneficiaries of Sanved's work is rescued trafficked girls and women. For many of these victims, the biggest hurdle that inhibits them from interacting with other people is a sense of shame about their own body. This feeling leads to the development of an inferiority complex. DMT encourages
them to deal with their problems.
At a recent seminar 'Using Dance and Movement Therapy in Working against Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation' held at the American Center, Kolkata, and facilitated by UNIFEM, Chakraborty elaborated on her work while member- trainers of Sanved put up 'Expressions' to show how participants can come to terms with their trauma and become inspired to move on.
Kolkata is a major conduit for trafficked women. Proximity to international borders with Bangladesh and Nepal - two well-known areas of human trafficking; and to the poverty-stricken hinterland - has resulted in a large number of victims in the state capital. According to 'Action Research on Trafficking in Women and Children in India', prepared by the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, for the National Human Rights Commission (2002-03): One out of every eight children trafficked in India is from West Bengal. Around 68 per cent of those trafficked are lured by promises of jobs and 16.8 per cent are abducted with promises of marriage. Recent data released by the National Crime Record Bureau, revealed that 2,529 minors went missing from West Bengal in 2006.
For its programmes, Kolkata Sanved partners with local NGOs as that ensures easier acceptance among the local populace. The organization has recently begun working with boys as well to address issues of masculinity, inherently linked to the issue of sexual violence.
Pointing out the difference between dance as an art form and DMT, Chakraborty explains, "When you say you are going to a dance class, it refers to a particular dance style you want to pursue for love of the art. But when we talk about dance therapy, it is need-based."
For Chakraborty, who along with being a trained dancer holds a Masters degree in sociology, it has been a long journey. From discovering a language through the medium of dance, to using that communication as a catalyst for behavioral change, to finally ensuring that her efforts gain acceptance - it has been a challenge.
All through her struggle, it was her experiences that came in handy. She was a member of Dancer's Guild, a well-known contemporary dance troupe; and of Rangakarmee, the only Hindi language theatre group in Kolkata. A particular influence was the Rangakarmee's production, 'Beti Ayee' ('A Girl is Born'). The play, which focuses on discrimination against the girl child, had such an impact on Chakraborty that she decided that she wanted to make a positive contribution to society. "I was itching to do something different with dance but didn't know what. I wasn't looking for merely churning out pretty dancers."
Then, while working on her post-graduate studies (criminology was a paper she offered), Chakraborty also had the opportunity to visit rescued victims of trafficking in their shelter homes.
Eventually, she volunteered with Sanlaap, an NGO in Kolkata that works largely with rescued girls, using dance as a core activity. While teaching the girls to dance - combining classical and contemporary movements - Chakraborty found that the girls followed the movements mechanically and without any "emotional involvement". This realization propelled the volunteer to experiment so that the young girls could become less inhibited. For instance, she told a girl to think she were a tree and thus show how she would perform in that role. The results were astonishing.
It was during this period that Chakraborty was introduced to the concept of DMT and was reassured that she was on the right track. In 2003, she was conferred the Ashoka Fellow Award (2003) for her innovative work. The recognition enabled her to evolve her own programme. The Ashoka Fellowship recognizes leadership qualities and innovative solutions to social problems. It is headquartered in the US.
Reflects Indrani Sinha, Director, Sanlaap, on the benefits of DMT for the inmates of her NGO's shelter homes, "We see a lot of hurt among these people but there's a lot of beauty too. We have to look for their wellspring of beauty, try to bring that to the surface and not treat them as just case studies. DMT helps them to rise above the brutalities they have gone through."
However, Veena Lakhumalani of CINI-Asha, an NGO that works with street and slum children who are often victims of abuse, cautions, "DMT doesn't replace counseling; it supplements it. There are long silences even during counseling sessions. Through dance we see such barriers often collapsing."
Sanved's DMT workshops are conducted in the rural areas, too, in collaboration with out-reach organizations and also at elite urban schools, where children find the joy of dancing a stress-buster. The organization also partners with several groups such as the All Bengal Women's Union; Apne Aap Women Worldwide that works with trafficked children and victims of violence; and Anjali, a mental health organization working within government hospitals. Sanved also networks with organizations in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Thailand.
Closer home, Chakraborty is proud of her DMT trainers, who have risen from challenging circumstances themselves but today are confident enough to run workshops on their own. To further the cause of their empowerment, Sanved is working on a curriculum "Sampurnata" (fulfillment) with the aim of offering a certificate course. Sampurnata will thus qualify the trainers to secure employment elsewhere, too. The initiative is a step towards Chakraborty's dream of setting up a full-fledged institute.
Of course, this is just a beginning: Chakraborty believes that her use of DMT among disadvantaged girls is a positive step towards their empowerment- towards leading them to a life beyond hopelessness.