The lathi that inmates love

Sree Sen | Updated on March 16, 2018

Chirantan Bhaduri rehabilitates prisoners by teaching them Raibenshe — a West Bengal martial dance involving the extensive use of bamboo staff

Dhiman** was a young boy when he was put behind bars as an undertrial. He spent five years — the time it took for his case to be finally settled by the courts in his favour — among violent and hardened criminals. By the time he walked out free in December 2017, he had grown up, in every sense of the term — a juvenile accused who was released as an adult. As he spent his formative years waiting for the final verdict, rather than wallowing in the injustices he faced, Dhiman found a mentor in his dance instructor. He wasn’t the only one.

Chirantan Bhaduri has been teaching and mentoring inmates of Kolkata’s Dum Dum Central Correctional Home for over five years now. “Dance is not about movements, it is a philosophy of life,” says this 42-year-old who surprised others as well as himself by this trajectory in his life. “In mid-2012, when I first started the classes with two-three inmates, including Dhiman, I was unsure of my decision. I went with the pre-supposition that society inculcates — that prisons are full of riots, violence, and all are murderers and blood-thirsty aggressors. First, I had to deconstruct my own notions and only then could I reach out to the inmates,” he says.

First off, it is important to know the difference between jails and correctional homes — in terms of rehabilitation, skill development, better facilities like open areas and less-restricted movements. The inmates, too, had their own doubts initially, having seen many past tutors come and go quickly.

A tutor is born

In 1984, eight-year-old Bhaduri started training under eminent teachers in various dance formats, including contemporary and classical forms. Alongside, he completed his MBA and joined as an educator and coordinator at Kolkata’s Apeejay school, where he continues till date. When his dance gurus passed away in late-2000, Bhaduri left their troupes with a desire to do some out-of-the-box work. Around this time he chanced upon Raibenshe, the martial-cum-folk dance of Bengal. Involving bamboo prowess, Raibenshe originated as the dance of Bengal warriors but was later adopted by the tax collectors of zamindars; so the predominant imagery was of sturdy and imposing men with their bamboo stick — the lathiyal. Over time, it also became a caste-specific vocation.

Chirantan Bhaduri: Dance of transformation

Chirantan Bhaduri: Dance of transformation


Nevertheless, when Bhaduri began mentoring inmates, he realised that Raibenshe was his best option. “A man taking up dance is not appreciated in our society, even ridiculed at times. We want our boys to be engineers and doctors but not performance artistes... dancing is considered to be effeminate and women-centric. Moreover, the section of society I work with have had no previous exposure to dance or any art form. These inmates are only used to labour and menial jobs, since all of them came from abject poverty. For them, it was easier to relate to a masculine, strength-oriented dance form like Raibenshe,” he explains.

The vocational class typically started after the inmates finished their daily quota of work — cleaning, cooking or construction.

Over the months, they started taking a keen interest and many more joined up for Raibenshe. Today, Bhaduri mentors 16 of them, for two hours, twice a week. Because it is rigorous training, participants have access to a special diet to build their health and stamina. This includes eggs, milk, sprouts, chana, meats.

Bhaduri’s effort has proved to be an anchor for many of the participants. It has opened up opportunities that inmates are otherwise deprived of. As the troupe began performing professionally, doing stage shows at locations outside the correctional home, their scope of contact with the outside world increased. On the basis of good behaviour, one can hope for family visits, parole and even early release. For inmates, such allowances are a luxury and it instils in them a sense of gratitude and brings about changes in behaviour and work culture.

Dazzling together: The Raibenshe dance form is highly rigorous and strenuous, with one man often carrying the weight of two or three others

Empowering steps

Dhiman was one of the many who walked out to lead a better life. Today, he is married and runs a small grocery store. It is a victory for him as well as his teacher, who has, over the years, become emotionally and personally connected with the welfare of his troupe.

Four more inmates, convicted felons serving life sentences, had been successfully rehabilitated and released for their socially-relevant good work.

How has Raibenshe under the tutelage of Bhaduri helped with their social uptake? The dance form is highly rigorous and strenuous, with one man often carrying the weight of two or three others. It involves constant movement — lunges, jumps, balancing, rhythmic styles, and so on. This has helped in developing core strength, teamwork and mental focus as well. With an instinctive awareness of movements and variations, martial dance forms end up sharpening the mind as well.

“Firstly, they have turned their lives around within the prison. Over the years, as praise for their performances started pouring in, it came as a huge confidence-boost. Most importantly, they learned to be team players and leaders, taking charge of situations and bonding together to deliver. Today, they often come up with their own choreography, having gained the confidence to put forth their contribution. On occasions, they have managed the costumes, stage production and performance by themselves in my absence,” says Bhaduri.


Power-packed show: The martial dance form helps develop core strength, teamwork and mental focus


Dhiman often returns to help Bhaduri and his old dance mates for shows. Since he lives on the outskirts of the city, he is unable to spend more than a few days, specially since there is no financial remuneration. “We hardly ever get paid for the performances, even though I impress upon the organiser that the money will go to the prisoner welfare fund, and is not a personal gain. Those released from prison cannot give up their daily wages for unpaid dance shows,” he says. He has to pay from his pocket for their travel and stay, if the organisers don’t offer to pay. He is happy to bear as much as he can, so long as his troupe gets to perform on stage, satisfaction and pride writ large on the faces of the artistes.

An added factor is the satisfaction of seeing the inmates turn their lives around. “I have witnessed their development and feel proud to have helped in ways I had never thought possible. In the beginning if I was unsure and took it only as a job, today I am personally invested in their lives,” says Bhaduri.

The missing steps

Although there are many initiatives led by various groups and individuals for inmates at correctional homes around the country, the question remains about their fate after their release. Unfortunately, ‘rehabilitation’ is typically restricted to inmates being taught a certain trade for an improved livelihood. This, under no circumstances, guarantees a job once he or she is out.

Additionally, the stigma of a prison stint makes them susceptible to exploitation.

“We label them as criminals throughout their lives. We refuse to take into consideration their livelihood, families and daily sustenance. Unless society starts to integrate them without discrimination or bias, these released inmates have no future, even if they have picked up livelihood skills at prison,” points Bhaduri.

Although Bhaduri and his troupe have around five performances a year, it’s still not enough to keep up the morale for long. Beyond serving as posterboys, these men find few takers for their craft who will remunerate them adequately.

Bhaduri has been trying his best to continue this work with the few grants that come his way. Else, the efforts of a poor man — out of jail and living in a slum — to perform a Raibenshe routine for an audience will continue to keep him poor.

Ironically, Raibenshe and Bhaduri may get him out of jail, but can’t keep him fed.

** Name changed to protect identity

Sree Sen is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist

Published on March 16, 2018

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