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Dance Therapy: How Sanved Heals Abused Women Through Dance

Sohini Chakraborty is a dance therapist who works with minor prostitutes rescued from brothels. Pallavi Bhattacharya reports on Sanved, Sohini’s organisation, which believes the term “sex worker” is derogatory and inappropriate, as prostitutes are abused and receive no sick leave.

On a casual visit to the Kolkata Book Fair in 1996, Sohini Chakraborty, an MA student of Sociology in Calcutta University, chanced upon a poster, which changed her life forever.

There was a photograph of a girl with the poem, “They sell me, my own blood for some gold and silver, I rinse and rinse my mouth but the treachery remains.” The poster happened to be of Sanlaap – a reputed human rights organisation of the city, which rehabilitated child prostitutes and children of prostitutes who were at the risk of second-generation prostitution.

Dance therapy

Deeply moved by the poster, Sohini met Indrani Sinha the founder-secretary of Sanlaap and volunteered to be a member of the human rights organisation to help the girls in distress. Indrani welcomed Sohini to Sanlaap, which at that time was still in its infancy.

Sohini, being professionally trained in Bharatnatyam and Navanritya (with experience of working with the Dancer’s Guild and Rangakarmee), decided to bring merriment into the lives of the girls at Sanlaap, who were prior victims of sexual abuse and violence by teaching them dance. Initially she started teaching them structured dance but much to her disappointment the response was poor.

Sohini refused to give up and approached her dance teacher Manjusree Chaki Sirkar for support and guidance. Manjusree advised her to start her classes with simple exercises and story based movements. “Each session was based on a single theme like the movement of the people walking in the street or the movement in one’s own home,” says Sohini. The girls gradually started sharing the traumatic stories of their past which helped Sohini to understand them better.

When new learners were inhibited to dance fearing that they may look clumsy, Sohini helped them to feel as free as possible. “Imagine the stage to be a sky and yourself to a bird flying. Whenever a bird flies it looks beautiful. Dance in any way you feel like and all of you will look graceful.”

Through dance the girls were symbolically psyched on how to overcome challenges in life. Sohini says, “We have an exercise in which the girls are blind-folded and obstructions are kept in their way, they dance on while freeing themselves from all obstacles.”

Sohini realised that the girls had developed a negative attitude to their bodies due to prolonged mental trauma and physical torture. She felt that dance needed to have a healing effect on the girls. From August 1999 to October 2000, Sanlaap took up a project called ‘Rangeen Sapney’ of which Sohini was a pioneer.

This research-oriented project emphasised on four cultural activities – dance, drama, mime and music involving 120 children, helping them to overcome their mental blocks and thereby blend them in with mainstream society.

Rangeen Sapney’ became the platform for the creation of Sohini’s independent NGO – Sanved. ‘Sanved’ means ‘sensitivity’ in Bengali. Sohini took professional training from Tripura Kashyap, pioneer of dance movement therapy in India and soon started teaching the same to the girls at Sanlaap.

Tripura says, “Dance therapy is in a very nascent in India, yet Sohini has used diverse kinds of body movement practices to enrich the discipline and expand its boundaries. She has been innovative to the extent of linking various movement activities, exercises and performances to issues and needs of these traumatized girls, thereby creating a new healing dance.”

On 8th March 2002, Sanved was inaugurated with a dance-theatre performance Kathamanabi at the Madhusudan Mancha auditorium in Kolkata. Sohini created a dance curriculum called ‘Sampurnata’, which includes body awareness, improvisation skill, group facilitation and therapy, creation, thinking and participation. This curriculum aims at providing various career options such as advocacy, campaign, performances and training.

Says 18-year-old Neela (name changed) who has trained under Sohini for seven years and has performed in various cities of India as a part of the Sanved Platform for Art & Advocacy, “Dance therapy has helped us to overcome our negative emotions like anger, frustration, low-self esteem, pain, trauma and guilt and has helped us to liberate our soul. Now I teach the freshers of Sanved to dance.”

Every dance performance has a social message to the audience. Through dance performances the girls show how minors are trafficked from their homes to red light areas, how they are forced into a life of prostitution, the traumatic lives they lead at brothels and how they are rescued and rehabilitated.

consists of 11 girls. The platform has performed in remote villages of India as well as in first world nations. Sohini has received the Ashoka International Fellowship, which has enabled her to work with other centres in India, Nepal and Bangladesh who are into rehabilitating re-trafficked children some of whom are even HIV positive. It is through dance that these girls have been able to relieve themselves of the social stigma associated with the AIDS virus and are leading normal lives.

Sanved members have also gone overseas to perform winning the hearts of foreign audiences. On May 11th, 2004, Sanved performed at London at The House of Commons on the occasion of Christian Aid Week. The Sanved troupe performed in Bangladesh during the ‘Violence Fortnight Week’ in 2004 for the campaign awareness programme on ‘women and child rights’.

In October 2004 two members of the Sanved troupe performed in New Orleans and Washington D.C. in the U.S at the International Conference organized by the American Dance Therapy Association. Sohini presented a paper on Dance Movement Therapy titled ‘Surviving Through Creation’ at the conference. 81.8 percent of the audience rated Sohini’s workshop as excellent and 13.6 percent felt it was ‘very good’.

In future, Sohini wants to open a dance therapy cultural institute which will be open not just to detrafficked girls and the downtrodden but also to the public.

You may help Sohini in her venture by donating funds to:
Kolkata Sanved,
60, Dasnagar, (Ground Floor),
P.O.- Lake Gardens,
P.S. – Lake Thana,
Kolkata – 700045,
Phone: 9433171820, 9831623427,


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