Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 1, 2011

Dancing for Manju

International performance will benefit women's shelters

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Manju didn't talk when Pleasanton resident Priya Shankar met her at the shelter for domestic violence victims in Rajasthan. Manju, 28, had left her abusive husband -- for the second time -- bringing her four children with her.

"Her husband came to the shelter and stole the children from her," Shankar said. "She tries to go by the house once in awhile to see if the children are OK. When I left the shelter, she was still dejected and downtrodden."

Shankar, 23, a 2005 graduate of Foothill High, was in India last year as a Fulbright Scholar when she began to help at the shelter, one of hundreds run by the nonprofit Seva Mandir Inc. A dancer since age 5, Shankar used this creative form to help the women.

"I found that dance could serve as a tremendously positive tool in bringing women out of their most difficult moments in life," Shankar said.

"At first Manju was completely silent so I didn't approach her initially but in time through dancing and talking I saw a lot of enthusiasm coming out of her," Shankar recalled.

Now that Shankar is back in the States, she is producing a dance performance to benefit Seva Mandir's shelter. "The Way She Moves: A Celebration of Womanhood" will take the stage April 17 at the Amador Theater, with dancing from India and Zimbabwe as well as Spanish Flamenco.

"The proceeds of the show will be used to provide basic amenities, security guards, vocational training and counseling to these women who live in an area where 61.4% of women experience abuse on a day-to-day basis," Shankar said.

She also got to know a woman named Raj whose husband had tried to light her on fire.

"She ran and was OK. She got to the shelter with her two children," Shankar remembered. "They were talking to the husband about her situation, and even though her husband had abused her in that way, she went back to her husband. I think for her there's a lot of feeling that she deserved it. That's also something that needs to change. She said, 'I'm destined to have this as my fate, there's no way out.' That's one of the sadder stories. Also, a lot of it is alcoholism."

One-fifth of the proceeds from the dance performance will go to Tri-Valley Haven since domestic violence is also a problem in the United States, Shankar said.

"But the degree and severity of violence is different in India. It is kind of the norm," she explained. "A lot of women are pretty attached to their husband even after things like that happen -- sometimes they come back even though they know it might not be the best situation for them or the children.

"There it's so harsh, the things women are subjected to, because there is family pressure," she added. "The women's parents will be mad if they run away. They don't have support on either side. At the shelter, at least they have a support network."

Seva Mandir's shelter has some vocational programs, she said, to help women become self-supporting.

"But they are underfunded, understaffed -- under everything," she noted.

Shankar graduated in 2009 from the University of Pennsylvania and applied for the Fulbright Scholarship.

"It was a one-year scholarship to work in India and do research," Shankar said. "I was living in Rajasthan for six months.

"My project was related to maternal and child health and nutrition, and some of programs around the country to alleviate the hunger issues women and child face," she continued. "Right now 33% of the children in India are underweight; 55% of the women are anemic.

"It's a pretty serious situation and I was studying that issue and what is the government doing to alleviate that."

Once she began to work at Seva Mandir's shelter, she got to know many of the women, speaking in Hindi, and then through teaching them dance.

"I got to hear a lot of the women's stories," Shankar said. "I got pretty close to them. When I first met them I found them morose and dejected. There was not a lot of happiness in their lives. But as a result of dancing with them on a day-to-day basis, I got to see them come out of their shells, come out of themselves."

When she returned home, she wanted to help the women in the shelter and felt producing a dance program was symbolic since she'd seen how powerful it was to raise their spirits.

"One of the pieces is a Rajasthani folksong that the women themselves taught me," she said. "It's kind of symbolic, the whole thing."

Shankar will attend Bryn Mawr College next for post-baccalaureate pre-medicine and plans to become an obstetrician/gynecologist.

And she said she will continue to dance.

"It's something that gives me a lot of peace and happiness," she said.

Friends of Seva Mandir

What: "The Way She Moves: A Celebration of Womanhood"

Who: Benefits Seva Mandir domestic violence shelter in Rajasthan, India, and Tri-Valley Haven

Where: Amador Theater, 1155 Santa Rita Road

When: 4-7 p.m., Sunday, April 17

Cost: $10, $25, $50, $100

Tickets: Call 417-1897 or visit friendsofsevamandir.com

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