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.