In central Kolkata, on an evening in late June, a dancer parted the black stage curtain of the Satyajit Ray Auditorium and peered at the audience he was about to perform for. Beside him, a policeman stood guard with a service rifle.
Moments later, the performer, along with nine others, trooped onto the stage and began an hour-long show. Wearing costume masks, pleated pyjamas and long-sleeved kurtas, they performed a dance that incorporated steps from Bharatanatyam, Kalaripayattu and Manipuri styles, enacting the plight of birds threatened by environmental destruction. The dancers spread their arms wide, like wings, and depicted the life cycle of a bird, from birth to gruesome death. Their grace belied the fact that they were all amateur dancers.
With the exception of Chirantan Bhaduri—the choreographer and director of the troupe—all the performers were serving life sentences at Kolkata’s Dum Dum Central Correctional Home. For the past five years, about a dozen lifers have been rehearsing dance every morning for about an hour. Bhaduri’s troupe has performed over 55 times—including at the 2013 Kolkata International Film Festival.
According to the West Bengal Correctional Services Act, one function of prisons is “to adopt measures whereby a prisoner confined therein may not fall prey to the depriving mental attitude.” Bhaduri told me that a key objective of imprisonment is “to reform and convert offenders into citizens fit to re-assimilate within the folds of society.” The dance programme at Dum Dum seems to be serving both of these purposes: giving participants an enriching distraction from prison life, and often, with that, a more positive attitude towards the future—even a glimmer of hope that their sentences might be cut short.
Rabin Mallik, a lean, muscular 30-year-old from Srirampur, in Hooghly district, has been dancing with Bhaduri ever since the programme began. Mallik, who was convicted of murder as a young adult, has been incarcerated for ten years. “Prison life is monotonous,” he said, when I met him backstage. “Dance helps me forget time. And when our families come and watch us perform, we get to see them, sometimes meet them. It gives us something to look forward to. Otherwise, wherever I look, backwards or ahead, I only see darkness.”
Bhaduri is 41 years old, and has trained in classical and non-classical forms of dance. His primary focus is Nava Nritya, which mixes traditional Indian classical dance with other styles, as well as yoga and martial arts. For about a decade before he applied to teach dance at Dum Dum, Bhaduri taught students at his own academy, located in Salt Lake, an upmarket Kolkata suburb. He decided to start teaching in prison because he wanted to “give back to society,” he told me, when we met at his home in Salt Lake.
“I had absolutely no idea what the challenge would be,” he said. “I stepped into Dum Dum Correctional Home sometime in June 2012, with a set of preconceived notions, like most people of society harbour with regard to jail inmates—being a bit wary of their behaviour.” But, he added, “after about a month working with them, they began to confide in me, and then I realised that circumstances have been cruel to them, and they are just like us, who need another chance.”
At the outset, Bhaduri said, only three inmates showed interest in taking lessons. But when they were told that they would be granted temporary parole to leave prison for public performances, “the incentive worked. More came forward and enrolled in the class.”
Another thing that initially curtailed interest, Bhaduri said, was the commonly held prejudice that dance is not masculine. But when the prisoners saw that he was teaching Raibesh, a folk dance in which performers enact the homecoming of a group of victorious warriors, “that put to rest their apprehensions about dance being a girlie thing.” Many of the students came to relate with the warriors, Bhaduri said, and dance “provided them with an outlet to express their emotions.” He later taught the class the bird-inspired routine that I had seen performed. That dance, he said, helped bring out a subtler, more emotional side of the students.
One person who has benefitted from Bhaduri’s lessons is Gora Chand Ghosh. Now 27 years old, Ghosh was just 16 when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Earlier, he said, he would wake up every morning thinking that his life was over. “Not only was my body confined, my mind too was blocked out, with no chance for a positive thought,” he told me over the phone, in April. But, Ghosh said, after he joined the class, “slowly, I began to enjoy the practice sessions and especially looked forward to the chance to go out of prison and perform and meet my family.”
In May 2016, Ghosh’s life sentence was remitted—partly on account of good behaviour, and partly because new evidence suggested he was a juvenile at the time of his offence. He was released from prison. Such special allowances are sometimes made for his students, Bhaduri said, because commitment to his programme indicates a willingness to comply with restrictions. “They abide by the rules, and there has never been a security concern, right through all these 55 performances,” he said. Two more of Bhaduri’s students besides Ghosh have also had their sentences remitted and been released from Dum Dum.
Since his release, Ghosh has occasionally rehearsed with the group, and performed with them thrice. He tries to dance with them as much as possible, though, he admitted, it is becoming more difficult for him to travel to Kolkata from his village to do so. Mallik said that if he were ever released, he would also continue to dance with the troupe.
Backstage in the auditorium, I met Sukanta Dey, a 45-year-old from Hooghly district, who was convicted of dacoity in 2007. While his fellow dancers put on their costumes in the green room, Dey told me that being able to dance with the others for such performances granted him “one last hope at redemption”—acceptance and respect in the eyes of society. “When the audience applauds our performance, we feel a little accepted and less ostracised.”
Lesley D Biswas is a journalist and creative writer based in Kolkata, and writes on environmental, social and women’s issues along with parenting and gardening.