Therapeutic and Creative Potential of Seraikella Chhau and other Indian dances.

By Asha Ponikiewska

The Mental health system in India, unfortunately, is neither well developed nor widely accessible; movement therapy is an even more recent addition to that system. There is still a lot of social stigma attached to seeking professional counselling and help regarding mental health, thus, leaving clients anxious while entering a therapeutic set up. The concept of ‘Dance/movement therapy’ may further escalate that stress.

As a therapist, I was taught to ‘begin where the client is’. This phrase refers to being emotionally attuned to what the client is experiencing and not to feel the temptation of taking the client where the therapist would like the client to be. I believe that the same applies to the movement vocabulary that the therapist introduces into the sessions. ‘Where the client is’ largely depends on the cultural context of the client, for example, a women’s group of young entrepreneurs in a metropolitan city will be very different from a women’s group in a village setup in Jharakhand. The context of an adult is different from that of a child.

I believe it is often beneficial for the clients to begin in the space that is culturally familiar for them as it can provide them with an initial sense of safety before embarking on a journey towards the unknown.

In India we have 8 recognised classical dance forms – Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu), Kathak (North of India), Kathakali (Kerala), Mohiniyattam (Kerala), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Odissi (Orissa), Manipuri (Manipur), Sattriya (Assam) as well as a number of regional folk and tribal dances.

When we talk about dance we often concentrate on kinaesthetic aspect of it, which is its movement vocabulary, overlooking the larger context in which the particular dance forms exist. In the context of rich and diverse Indian tradition, therapists have enormous possibility to creatively adapt not only movements but also elements of costume, cultural context, ritualistic context of some dances etc. into the purview of therapeutic work. Below are a few examples of how some of the existing forms of Indian dance could be adapted for therapeutic context.

All forms of classical Indian dances use mudras or stylised hand-gestures. Using mudras activates smaller muscles of the hand and that is a way for improving Fine Motor Skills. One could teach mudras and some fingers and wrist exercises to those individuals experiencing problems with Fine Motor Movements (ex. young children, elderly population).

They can also be applied creatively where the therapist might ask the group/individuals to create their own hand gestures depicting various emotions, concepts, etc and create a story or a dialogue using only the hand movements. Similarly, if clients are reluctant to use larger body movements, one could ask them to first depict emotions by using only the mudras and then explore how the form of each mudra can be translated into the bodily posture and finally into movements.

Namaskaram is another integral part of classical Indian dances and it corresponds to what would be named as opening or closing ritual in a therapeutic context. In case of Seraikella Chhau (stylised martial arts dance from Jharakhand) the dancers hold a real or imaginary shield and sword while performing namaskaram. In the therapeutic context, one could teach a simplified version of the namaskaram movement sequence and ask the clients to name 2 strengths that they could perceive as their weapons. As a follow up exercise, the clients could be asked to create a visual representation of these strengths as weapons and create their own versions of namaskaram.

Masks play a very important role in Seraikella Chhau – the face of the performer is hidden and so all the emotions have to be expressed through body movements. Clients could be asked to design their own masks representing various parts of self or emotions and by wearing each mask could be asked to explore the emotional states that the masks represent through movement.

Iranian researchers Fatimah Bahrani and colleagues[i] had been studying the impact of martial art training on children with ASD and pointed out that Kata (Japanese word for choreographed patterns of movements used in martial arts) techniques training decreases stereotypes in ASD children. Seraikella Chhau was born out of martial art exercises and many of its steps follow the pattern of opening/expanding/attacking and closing/defending the body that is very similar to Kata and thus perhaps a simplified version of Seraikella Chhau steps could also be used for working with clients with ASD.

These were just a few examples of how Indian dance could be used for therapy, however, the possibilities for borrowing and adapting are infinite and I would strongly encourage the community of therapists in India to draw from rich cultural heritage of possibilities available to us.


[i] Bahrami F1, Movahedi A, Marandi SM, Abedi A. (2012) Kata techniques training consistently decreases stereotypy in children with autism spectrum disorder.


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