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Dancer Sangeeta Isvaran Has Developed A Method That Uses Empathy To Bring About Social Change

  • IWB Post
  •  August 12, 2019

Picture this.

It’s a normal day at school or at work. You’re attending a workshop on social issues. And maybe you’re looking forward to the lecture or maybe you’re not but you expect there to be a lecture, as it is with workshops generally. But then the workshop begins and all of a sudden there’s this lady who’s asking everyone to form a circle and introduce themselves, then she’s opened her hair and is combing it, then she’s playing games and you’re just there thoroughly baffled as to what the hell is going on.

This is how dancer Sangeeta Isvaran begins all her workshops and even though people look at her like she’s crazy, you gotta do what you gotta do, is what she says.

Sangeeta is a dancer who uses dance and theatre to bring about education, empowerment and conflict resolution amongst marginalized communities across the world, such as sex workers, street children, indigenous communities, landmine victims, people with disabilities, victims of caste and religious conflict, as is stated on her website.

Her work in this area led to her developing the Katradi Method, which is a technique with five levels of communication and understanding to bring about transformation. She constantly stresses the importance of empathy and while elaborating on the reasons, she says, “Communication or understanding is not just intellectual, it is emotional as well but unfortunately our education system focuses only on the intellect because in today’s world we think that if we have an intellectual understanding of a problem we have a better chance of solving it, but I think that’s not true at all because most of our problems come from a source of emotion, intuition or even a physical source, it rarely comes from a rational physical thought.”

When trying to convince people to let go of the restrictive and damaging traditions, logic does not work. One would think that telling them the statistics or logical arguments on the ill effects of these practices would convince them but as Sangeeta said, logic does not work in these instances because these are beliefs deep-rooted in ancestry and tradition, so the people are emotionally connected to them.

So how does one get through to them, how to make them receptive to new ideas? “Since logical arguments don’t help, you take them through different emotions of why this problem occurs, make them bond with each other first like doing a lot of dancing, movements, sports or games where they start looking at each other as people and not Muslim or Christian or upper caste or lower caste, they start feeling like a community and then we start actually addressing the problem. This has a much better chance of success. Our methodology itself focuses on the fact that you need to first bridge the gap between people and then address the problem, the methods you use to convince them to become passionate changemakers have to come from a source of inspiration which is not just intellectual.”


All the activities and all the games that are played during these workshops are an effort to link emotions to actions. Sangeeta explains, “I play games such as big eyes small eyes and big ears where the participants widen their eyes and open their ears. I do these activities because it’s important to open our eyes big to see each other, open our ears to listen to each other and then open our hearts to ensure that we aren’t just seeing and listening to them with our judgments and prejudices but with our hearts, with open hearts and minds.”

To encourage empathy, Sangeeta and her team primarily work with schools, conducting workshops for both the teachers and the students. Our education system isn’t very conducive to empathetic listening, with its focus more on IQ than EQ and Sangeeta works with the teachers on how they can be empathetic by focusing on their students and listening to them without immediately cross-questioning them. When a student goes to their teacher with the intent of sharing something, the first response, instead of reprimanding them, should be to ask them how they’re feeling and thank them for confiding in you, because it’s a big thing that the child had the courage to open up and that you were the one they trusted enough to come to first.

Empathy is something Sangeeta learned from observing her mother, and what she saw stayed with her way past her childhood. Recounting one such incident, she says, “Mother was ill, her body was failing and her brain was basically functioning on autopilot. During the recent floods, we had to take her up on the upper floor so I called a couple of guys to come and help me. While setting her down she slid off the chair, she was a 75-year-old woman who was in a lot of pain, and so I thought she was going to scream at all of us but when she opened her mouth she said aiyyo, I’m so sorry I’m troubling you, thank you for your help.”

She adds, “Her first instinct was gratitude even when she was so ill. Her default reaction was to be grateful for their help and that really taught me something, we are all a bundle of habits, most of the time we are on autopilot from whatever we’ve grown up with and the habits we’ve developed. So watch yourself, watch yourself and see how much empathy and kindness you are generating.”

One must constantly monitor their behaviour and make a conscious effort to be empathetic to others around us, she believes, because it is one of the most effective ways to bridge the divide between all of us and make us more considerate towards others.

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