Healing Effects of Dance and Movement Therapy in Autism: In Conversation with Dr. Aditi Bandyopadhyay
Dr. Aditi Bandyopadhyay, a physician of medicine with a parallel identity as an Odissi dancer and as dance and movement therapy, practitioner, has been actively involved as an advocate for rights of persons with Autism and other neuro-developmental delays. She speaks about the new vistas opening up in dance and movement therapy and music for helping children with Autism and special needs.
Dr. Aditi Bandyopadhyay, is a physician of medicine by profession, with a parallel identity as an Odissi dancer and presently as a dance and movement therapy practitioner. She has more than ten years of experience in critical care medicine. Presently she is focused on her research on neurophysiology of Autism. She had received her initial training in intervention and management of Autism at Thompson Center for Autism in Columbia, Missouri, USA and has also pursued an academic program on Public Health at the University of Missouri, USA. Since then, and even after returning to India Dr. Aditi has been actively involved as an advocate for rights of persons with Autism and other neuro-developmental delays.
Dr. Aditi is a founder trustee of SAMYA Foundation for Special Needs, catering to various needs of people with multiple disabilities. SAMYA Foundation is focusing on facilitated clinical services for people with special needs. Dr. Aditi has trained herself in different methodologies of intervention in special education, and has received certification in diagnostic and interventional methods of Autism from different acclaimed and accredited programs. She is actively involved with activities of Autism Society West Bengal. Since 2015, her work with children with Autism and other developmental disabilities through dance and movement therapy at SAMYA has earned her immense recognition. Presently she is working with about 50 children at her own dance and movement therapy center in Kolkata at SAMYA DMT Unit. She also trains parents at SAMYA as a free community service regarding various interventions and management skills about raising children with disabilities.
Among her other credentials, she is a medical faculty in the collaborative DMT program of Kolkata Sanved with the Center for Lifelong Learning (CLL) at TATA Institute of Social Sciences at Mumbai. For the last two years, she has been a resource person conducting DMT workshops for faculty and students at IIM Kozikhode, and has also delivered lectures and workshops at different CBSE schools and organizations that cater to special needs groups focusing on inclusion. Dr. Aditi has also been interviewed at Doordarshan, spreading general awareness regarding people with special needs, emphasizing on how to train them through ‘Prasar Bharati’ programs, and on the management and mainstreaming of people with special needs.
Kirmani Pallavi by Aditi Bandyopadhyay
Dr. Aditi, who has more than 25 years of experience in Odissi as a performer, choreographer and instructor had run her own dance institution named Nrityaneer (2000-2007) and thereafter was one of the founder members of MU Dance and Recreation Association (MUDRA) at University of Missouri (2008- 2011). A disciple of legendary Guru Padmabibhushan Kelucharan Mahapatra, she has performed in various national and international dance festivals and her productions, ‘Ananta-the Infinite’, ‘Sri Krishna Prem Gatha’ and’ Teen Katha’ have received recognition and praise by critics. Presently the Odissi dance troupe led by Dr. Aditi focuses on integration of people with disabilities along with regular neurotypicals. In a candid conversation, she talks about her journey, both as an Odissi dance exponent and a medical practitioner working in the field of Neurophysiology of Autism.
Lopa Banerjee: Aditi, while looking at your career graph as essayed in your bio, it struck me that you are an artist to the core, dancing away to glory along with your foray into the medical sciences, where you have left an indelible mark at such a young age. Do these disparate fields seem binary to you, or do you think of this journey as a cohesive whole?
Aditi Bandyopadhyay: Thank you, Lopa. Well, I believe once a dancer, always a dancer. Dance was an integral part of me perhaps since the day I was born. Started learning Indian classical dance (Kathak) at the age of three under Guru Parimal Krishna and thereafter for six years at Uday Shankar India Cultural Center under the tutelage of Smt Amala Shankar and other eminent Gurus of Odissi, Kathak and Kathakali. At the age of twelve, I completely devoted myself to Odissi, another Indian Classical dance form under the tutelage of Guru Giridhari Nayak and then finally under the guidance of Padmabibhushan Late Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra, and after his demise under Guru Sutapa Talukdar. Presently, I am pursuing it from time to time under the guidance of Guruji’s son Guru Ratikanta Mahapatra at different training workshops.
Since childhood, I had a dream to become a physician as well and pursued my studies and tried hard to get into Medical School. After my school education in South Point High School, I graduated with my medical degree from Calcutta National Medical College. I worked in critical care medicine and also did my observership in pediatrics in US, and continued with my Masters in Public Health under the University of Missouri. Presently, I am continuing my specialization in clinical Physiology and intend to focus on Neurophysiology of Autism.
I have been juggling both the fields initially as a medical practitioner and a full-time dancer heading a dance institution and a performing troupe. The connecting link was hard to find and was frustrating at times, being unable to do complete justice to either of them due to lack of adequate time. I still believed that somewhere the both would converge someday and it did, until I was exposed to Dance and Movement Therapy. I knew I had qualities of a healer within but was not getting a clue from where to make it work so that my passion and profession could blend. While in US, I got exposed to Dance and Movement Therapy. Earlier I had worked with children with special needs through the medium of dance and music but I learnt the proper discipline and got certified through Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Kolkata Sanved. I am also presently a guest faculty of medicine in the ‘Diploma in DMT’ program under TISS. I modified the DMT module, practiced in general and shaped it as per the needs of children with Autism and neurodevelopmental delays. Presently, I am the Director of this specialized DMT program for special needs practiced at SAMYA Foundation, Kolkata, India.
Kirmani Pallavi by Aditi Bandyopadhyay
Lopa: How do you strike a balance between these two identities and what exactly inspires you to juggle these roles?
Aditi: Dance is my life. Since, childhood I am fascinated by how the brain regulates movements. I never had any problem balancing the huge academic pressure in Medical School along with my dance practice, choreographies and performances. When the social pressures increased with increasing age for sure, it became a little challenging but not very difficult. Now, with ‘DMT for special needs’ being the connecting link, I know the reason why these parallel careers emerged in my life.
Lopa: Tell us a few words about your formative years, the role of your parents and your family in shaping your career and your persona. When did you decide to take up dance as a parallel career, along with your other academic pursuits?
Aditi: My parents Mr. Asok Kumar Bandyopadhyay and Mrs. Indrani Bandyopadhyay were my main inspirations since my very childhood. They have always been with me, by my side and encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to pursue. Dance kept happening naturally in my life, and thereafter performances too. I was blessed to have parents in my life, who never pushed me into anything but encouraged me to pursue my interests. I never planned to take dance as a parallel career. As I said, dance defines me and the physician part of me emerged with my intention to become a healer. But, finally DMT created the path to blend two into one.
Lopa: As a classical Odissi dancer, you have had extensive training while in India and have also performed in the US, while being one of the founder members of MUDRA, a formal dance institute based at University of Missouri. You are a performer, choreographer and instructor, combined into one. Do let us know about your journey with dance in Kolkata and the US, the various national and international dance festivals you have been a part of, and how these experiences have shaped your persona.
Aditi: I started performing at a very young age with my debut as a solo performer at the age of fourteen at Sadarang Music Conference. Thereafter, I performed at various nationally recognized festivals and also toured Sweden and Denmark with my performances and workshops in October, 1998. I started my first dance institution in India named Nrityaneer while I was a student of medicine and staged three dance productions of my own. Then went to US in 2007 where at the University of Missouri, I met a group of young, vibrant and enthusiastic graduate students pursuing their Masters or PhD. I started choreographing for them and teaching them Odissi as well. It was a joint effort of all of them to start a dance organization on the campus of University of Missouri named MUDRA which was an abbreviation of MU Dance and Recreation Association. We toured over the Midwest of US and performed with the participants of MUDRA at different coveted dance festivals.
I returned to India in 2011, and started performing again. My dance students of Nrityaneer, had grown big and their enthusiasm again encouraged me to start a dance troupe of my own. I also collaborated with eminent artistes and created a dance production together. But, now dance was taking a different role in my life. It was more about self exploration, spontaneous movements and an urge to identify the therapeutic elements of dance and music from a more analytical perspective.
I started training children with Autism and other neurodevelopmental delays through Dance and Movement Therapy, and formed a non-profit organization named SAMYA Foundation with my friend Bandhana Katoch who had been formerly an integral part of MUDRA in the University of Missouri.
Hence, dance always guided me in a way to shape my character, and personality and finally my mission in life.
MUDRA – Hari Riha performed by the MU Dance and Recreation Association
Lopa: What is your perception of creative arts and its reception in both the east and the west? Do you think there is enough exposure of the rich cultural heritage of the Odissi dance traditions in the US, or do you think there is a lot more awareness to accomplish? Is the pedagogy of Odissi dance, or any classical Indian dance form perceived any differently in the US, compared to in India?
Aditi: I know quite a number of good Odissi dancers and choreographers in US. During my tenure in US, I have seen a huge enthusiasm among Indian families to train their daughters in any Indian Classical dance forms. It seemed the discipline of Indian classical dance was highly regarded as a medium of infusing high values among children growing up far away from their origin. I saw a great enthusiasm, interest and knowledge among all international students from across the world. Before learning, they used to even do research on the different aspects of Indian Classical dance and also would try to know the mythologies very frequently depicted in dance forms.
However, I still feel in US and also in other parts of the world, the dancers are very much restricted to their own regions and it would be great if they can collaborate and present productions. It’s not that it is not happening but it is difficult at times due to distance related issues which was prevalent while I was in US and technology was not that highly improved even seven years back which could allow dancers to collaborate through online resources.
Accomplished dancers and Gurus also travel frequently to US to train students and probably due to lesser number of students there as compared to India, they are at times more approachable than what it is in India. I have always felt that Odissi has been really acclaimed and appreciated in US and so also other Indian classical dance forms.
Nagendra Haraye .. Performed by Samya Trust – Mudra Dance Unit
Lopa: You have come back to Kolkata, India now, the cultural epicenter of the country after staying in the US for quite some years. Currently you are working in one of the hospitals in Kolkata, while also pursuing research on neurophysiology of Autism. As a medical practitioner and researcher, can you throw us some light on the current state of autism awareness and intervention in India?
Aditi: Autism awareness and interventions have really improved over the years in India as also in other parts of the world. As we know, Autism is an invisible disability and it has a huge spectrum of presentation, for which it gets really difficult for people to understand Autism who have not faced it in the family. For parents and families, it’s very difficult to accept the diagnoses overnight and it presents with a lot of denial in the family which delays the early interventions for the child and makes the prognosis worse with every passing year. There are quite a good number of organizations and centers working on early interventions these days, setting up parent awareness workshops and their quality of work is really good. However, it is still limited to city population and resources are very limited to parents who can avail it in the cities and can financially support it. The rural and suburban population is really suffering. Even if they know that their child needs help and support, they do not have the means to avail it regularly.
Our aim through SAMYA Foundation is to conduct some outreach programs in rural areas on awareness, early screening, clinical services and referral services to address these groups of people.
Lopa: As a founder trustee of SAMYA Foundation for Special Needs, catering to various needs of people with multiple disabilities, where do you think West Bengal stands in terms of Autism therapy and management? What are the proactive measures taken by organizations like SAMYA to cater to children with special needs and their parents?
Aditi: I guess, I have partly answered this question in reply to your last question. In West Bengal some of the organizations like Autism Society West Bengal, Pradeep Center for Autism, and some other organizations too, are providing real good service to people of West Bengal, north eastern provinces and even Bangladesh in terms of providing early interventions, parent training programs and adult rehabilitation. SAMYA Foundation is closely associated with such organizations in Kolkata and also outside Kolkata in extending its services.
Presently SAMYA holds only Dance Movement Therapy classes, workshops, assessments and Teachers’ training programs. Very soon in coming year, we will start our clinical services. We also hold once a month, parent awareness programs named, ‘ Mothers’ Meet’ to empower mothers and an online program featuring potential in every child with Autism Spectrum Disorder in our weekly program, ‘Know Your Kid’.
Lopa: You have also worked as a resource person conducting workshops for faculty and students at IIM Kozikhode, apart from delivering lectures and workshops at different CBSE schools and organizations catering to special needs groups. Do you think the process of mainstreaming of people with special needs has been easier to attain than before, with media intervention, adequate resources and training?
Aditi: Yes absolutely, but a lot more need to be done. Many companies are now globally hiring people with Autism, and other groups of mentally and physically challenged, differently abled persons. These companies are using their potential for their own growth but sadly enough much more needs to be done. When I worked through DMT with young and promising students at IIM Kozikhode, National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore and other institutions, I found much more acceptance. They would come up to me after their DMT sessions and share their stories of their own siblings, cousins or neighbors in their lives and seek my suggestions to help them. I feel people nowadays are more empowered and empathetic towards these issues but a lot more awareness needs to be created. Media intervention in forms of interviews, documentaries, discussions and programs are helping but they need to be monitored by able minds as well. One single wrong information or false promise can create a serious damage in the lives of people touched by such issues.
Lopa: Tell us about your critically acclaimed dance and movement therapy at SAMYA Foundation, and how do you think it would be a pathbreaking therapy, aimed at helping children with developmental disabilities?
Aditi: Dance and Movement Therapy is a psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive and physical integration of the individual. DMT has wide application in different areas. The basic principle of dance and movement therapy revolves around creating awareness of mind and body and connecting them together through movements.
Movements play a big role in shaping the brain and using it for a purpose. The basic principle of dance and movement therapy revolves around creating awareness of mind and body and connecting them together through movements. Music is also an integral part of this discipline and the therapeutic effect of music on human mind is not unknown. Application of dance and movement therapy on children with Autism aims at addressing the following areas:
- Developing attention span
- Awareness of self and other bodies in the environment
- Orientation and coordination with other objects and bodies in the environment
- Synchronized rhythmic movements develop higher cognitive functions of the brain
- Developing social skills
- Communication (with an emphasis on importance of non verbal communication)
- Developing gross and fine motor skills
At SAMYA, we are starting with a longitudinal study aiming to find out a quantitative measure of DMT as an important art-based intervention in Autism (by use of standardized tools) and some other neurodevelopmental challenges. Children attending my classes have shown considerable improvement in terms of communication, self awareness and attention span.
Shrita Kamala – Performed by Dr. Aditi Bandyopadyay
Lopa: Speaking from a deeply personal level, as a woman, as a mother, and as a professional, I know you have broken quite some shackles and claimed your rightful space in the universe. What has feminism meant to you for all these years and how have its nuances evolved in your life?
Aditi: I would rather call myself as a humanist than a feminist. Yes, I am proud to be a woman and I feel women do have the strength to be nurturer and provider at the same time. I am the mother of a nine years old child with high functioning Autism and have been a single mother since last seven years. It has been very challenging initially, to get uprooted and start my career, higher education and my child’s interventions from the very scratch. My parents, my child, my family as a whole and my friends had been my greatest strengths and of course my kids whom I work with, my child’s therapists and my senior colleagues at work too. I realized over time, that none of us can be blessed with all kinds of love at the same time in the same life. In my life, I have been deprived of one kind of love and trust but I have been compensated and overwhelmed with so many other kinds of love that came in different forms. I am a strong woman to many, whom people would like to follow and fall back upon, but I have had my moments of despair and sufferings. I wouldn’t say I evolved out as a strong person from them overnight. I took very long time on some occasions to heal myself. I believe in the law of Karma and I feel that our births are a process by which we get the opportunity to make up for our past debts as well as do the work we are destined for. Feminism for me is not a woman’s world without men, but a world where women and men mutually respect each other as humans and not on the basis of gender. My children with special needs taught me that. I truly believe that my kids have actually guided me in every way and they are making me a more positive person each day. I owe a lot to my son and my special kids.
Lopa: As a mother, and as a staunch advocate for the rights of individuals with autism, what message do you want to give to parents of children with autism/and/or other special needs?
Aditi: I have two messages for them:
1. If you identify and feel strongly in your child’s early years that something is wrong somewhere, and that your child is different from other kids of the same age group, then do not wait. Do not listen to family members, grandparents trying to disprove you, but seek expert’s opinion from a pediatrician, psychiatrist, general physician, psychologist or any center catering to children with Autism. There are questionnaires for parents available online, and you can try them. Please do not look for cure, as cure for Autism is still not available, as the cause is yet to be discovered. Different theories are there, but your job is to take the child as early as possible for early interventions in the form of speech therapy, occupational therapy and behavior management.
Do not only focus on delayed speech as that is the most common symptom drawing concern. But try to work on the child’s communication and empower yourself through parent training courses and workshops as at the end of the day, you are the most consistent therapist of your child. Please do not spend time in convincing others in the family, resisting you from getting your child treated. This is the time for both parents to work hand in hand for the child with complete focus on the child’s development. Eventually, when your interventions start working, your family members will understand you and your child someday. Channelize your mind and energy completely on your child.
2. You are not alone in this journey. Autism comes and stays with many challenges, I agree. Like the spectrum of Autism, the challenges carry multiple features. But, there are many parents like you with the increasing number of diagnosed cases of Autism every day. You may be having sleepless nights watching your child’s meltdowns, you may not be able to live a fun-filled social life in the very beginning, but only a few years of hard work spent towards knowing and understanding your child will change your life forever. You will realize you are the chosen one for this cause.
Initial years of exhaustion will be converted to years of enjoyment and empowerment when you will be guiding other parents and help them feel positive. You will enjoy your child’s special abilities when you will be able to find them. Even if apparently, there seems to be no special ability, you will realize every little independent act of his or her despite the challenges is a special ability in itself. You will feel happy and contented with every apparently simple thing your child does. Trust me, life changes for better and in the process, you will be able to shift your focus to much more meaningful aspects of life, rather than the mundane glitters of worldly pleasures.
Lopa: Thank you Aditi, for this enlightening conversation and wish you achieve more milestones in your journey.
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