Saving Lives Through Dance

Text and pictures: Karolin Kent 19.8.2014

When traveling through India one is affected by the numerous children moving around the streets; begging, cleaning, singing and collecting bottles to earn some money. Some are sent out by organised criminals, others by their families. What they all have in common is that their childhood is deprived. Can dance make a change in these individuals’ life?

When spending six months in India I experienced a country filled with duality of beauty and horror. A complex entity, which sometimes feels like an impossible target for human rights. However, I came across strong individuals with the motivation to find a way of change. India is a country filled with these persons and I have never met so many under the same roof as Kolkata Sanved. Here I met innovation, motivation and empowerment.

Kolkata Sanved, a dedicated organisation, based in Kolkata India, is passionate about “saving lives through dance”. With the use of Dance Movement Therapy and Dance Activism they reach thousands of victims of violence in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The humanitarian organisation has its focus on victims of trafficking as well as other marginalised groups. With the method of Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) they reach out to children in West Bengal whom are all victims of some sort of violence. Their work is performed in shelter homes, hospitals, government institutions, schools and on railway platforms. As a result they reach a wide range of people both the marginalised and mainstream population.


Sociologist and dance activist Sohini Chakraborty founded Kolkata Sanved in 2004 supported by Ashoka Fellow, a network for social entrepreneurs. She undertook an MA in sociology where she specialized in criminology. As a postgraduate in sociology (1996) and dancer, she was looking to bridge movement practice and rehabilitation of survivors of violence and abuse. She investigated these two methods whilst living in shelter homes with trafficking survivors. As a result she found that movement was a powerful instrument for psycho-social rehabilitation.

Through Sanved´s DMT training program, survivors of trafficking, exploitation and abuse are offered training to become educators, movement trainers, advocates and performers. Through this practice survivors are able to start a new life and also to change the lives of other people by passing on their knowledge. Inspired by Western movement therapy Sanved have gone on to develop their own practice. They incorporate Indian influences in order to achieve a successful program of psychosocial rehabilitation and social change. For instance they utilize Indian dance movements in the practice as well as only running group sessions, as group activities occur more often in Indian than in Western societies. However, group sessions were used more commonly in western societies during the early movement therapy practice in the 1940s. Sanved is counselled by, amongst others, Bonnie Bernstein, Professor, International Dance Therapist (USA). Bernstein is a professor at John F Kennedy University and Blanche Evan, pioneer dance therapist, mentored her between 1970–1982.

During an interview I did with Sohini Chakraborty, she talks about how survivors are domed to a future in despair and denial of their past. Having had their bodies violated, most of them have no confidence or dignity left. Movement and dance help them accept and understand their bodies as well as interact and communicate with others. Furthermore, it stimulates physical health and creative thinking. This is a gateway for them and an opportunity to start a new life. Normally, marginalised people face no future and live life below the poverty line. The traditional methods of rehabilitation do not seem to be enough for reaching psychological health. Sohini Chakraborty thinks that the dynamic nature of movement and art makes it an efficient tool for this kind of work. People, life, society are not static entities and therefore one needs dynamic tools to meet their problems. Sanved gives survivors an opportunity to interact with normal society on an equal basis. As trainers, advocates and dance activists they are ready and confident to spread the word and work against exploitation. After visiting Sanved I could recognise these outcomes in the work I undertook with similar projects in Sweden. I met young individuals that supposed to be impossible to communicate with or incorporate in a group. It was interesting how I could follow them and observe every little step of opening up, communicating and taking responsibility in a group and for its own actions. After some time they found motivation in life and the will to get up in the morning. In the end art was not necessarily the aim, nevertheless it was the artistic exploration that gave them the confidence and will to look into the future.


Linda Hartley writes about how body, mind and emotions are connected and influence each other through complex interactions. In her book Somatic Psychology: body, mind and meaning (2004), you can read about Candace Pert, the former chief of The National Institute of Mental Health (USA), and her research within the area. In 1999 Pert reveals that the mind and the body have a two-way communication: “Neuropeptides and their receptors site, located throughout the brain and other parts of the body, form a network of communication linking the brain and the nervous system, the endocrine system, the immune system, the digestive organs, and other tissues of the body, a ´psychosomatic network´ of information communication” (Hartley 2004, p. 34).

Consequently by taking care of the body, one’s mind will stay healthier and vice versa. Psychosomatic practices are based around this belief, amongst others, and demonstrate a different angle for reaching mental, emotional and physical health. This kind of knowledge is not surprising for most movement practitioners. However, there is now more and more scientific proof that can support the idea.


Since their establishment in 2004 Sanved has gradually built trust for their work and today they receive financial support both from national and international funding bodies. They aim to develop their DMT program in order to reach an internationally certified educational program and become a centre of excellence in South East Asia. As their work was successful in Kolkata they started partnerships with international organisations in Bangladesh, Nepal and recently a new national collaboration in Mumbai.

Sanved is also utilising dance as a method of activism. In addition to their activist actions in India, Sanved started a cross-national collaboration with the organization Living Lens, London UK, with the project Transforming Steps. Together they aimed to raise the awareness about the situation of increasing human trafficking and exploitation during major sports event. Their target was The Olympic Games 2012. Both Kolkata Sanved and Living Lens utilise creative methods of therapy with survivors of trafficking. They come together as a duo, merging their mediums of movement and video, in order to reach a broad audience and communicate their cause. Further collaborators of this event are the renowned theatre Sadlers Wells, London, and choreographer Mafalda Deville from Jasmin Vardimon Company. The current performance company of Kolkata Sanved (seven survivors of violence) undertook a choreographic process with Deville, which they performed during Connect Festival (March 2012) at Sadler’s Wells. During this creative process the performers challenged their physical and mental abilities in order to gain confidence within themselves as empowered individuals. In this choreography they expressed past experiences and the fight against them.

Each performer is active as DMT trainers in Kolkata, educated by Kolkata Sanved. This process introduced them to contemporary dance and cross-cultural influences that broadens their view of dance and human rights. Amina, the DMT trainee says, in Transforming steps blog, that “The movements helped me feel that I am moving ahead with my life.” In the same blog another trainee, Jhuma, says “At first I was afraid that I could not do such hard movements but when I tried it was not that difficult. In fact, I experienced power.”

Alongside Deville’s choreography they performed a piece directed by Susmita Pujara, London, where they tell their own stories of their journey that brought them to where they are today. Living Lens documented these performances in order to be screened together with other documentary footage at multiple venues across London during the Olympic Games 2012. Transforming Steps speak for the victims of trafficking and violence around the world to open our eyes of what is going on around the Olympic Games and other similar events.

Community based work within dance is still fairly new in many countries. For example, in England art is an established method in schools, rehabilitation, in prisons, with physically and mentally impaired people. There are multiple practitioners in the world that have realised the strength of art as a tool when approaching different people. Moreover, artistic practice is beneficial for every individual and ones wellbeing as it allows creative thinking, expression, freedom of speech and therefore a new voice. Furthermore, it is recognised that art is an efficient tool for raising questions and creating a forum for discussion, such as Sanved used Dance Activism in London.

Sohini Chakraborty is quoted on Sanveds´ website, “I have been fighting against the mainstream understanding of dance as entertainment or an art form for the elite. It has been strongly believed for ages that socially, politically or culturally ‘dance’ cannot be a medium of social change. Till today this notion remains imbued in the minds of many”.

By allowing art to have a more important role in everyday life, perhaps it will be possible to reach more individuals in different situations. How can we raise the awareness of art in our social context and who will have the courage to invest in artistic & cultural practice? Sanved has achieved incredible results and there are similar work going on around the world. However, it seems to not be enough, as there are still few that realise the importance of art in social contexts. In Sweden, community art has just started growing. Though if there is no change in the country’s budget distribution the development can only be very slow, as the current budget allows less then one percent for culture. Most of this kind of practice happens on voluntary basis. We are in a time where many things are changing and the question of value is prominent. Perhaps it is time for dance and artistic practice to advance on the scale that measure what makes society develop successfully?

Karolin Kent is an interdisciplinary artist with the focus on movement and visual art. After graduating, with a BA in Dance Theatre at Laban (London 2011), Karolin has presented work within performance, film and photography in Europe, India, Thailand and Mexico.

Hartley, L. 2004, Somatic psychology: body, mind and meaning, London, Philadelphia: Whurr publishers.
Kolkata Sanved
Transforming Steps
John F. Kennedy University

The article was developed through the ke?ja Writing Movement project with the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union, and Nordic Culture Point.