One often thinks of Indian prisons as dingy, cramped cells with their mean and often dehumanised inmates waiting for redemption. So it comes as a surprise when a group of prisoners takes to stage and gets applauded for performing a play written by Rabindranath Tagore or when paintings made by inmates are appreciated by art connoisseurs and get sold at art exhibitions for thousands of rupees.
But isn't that what prisons are supposed to be about? To reform those who committed mistakes in their lives and give them a second chance. Contrary to popular perception of prisons as violent spaces, two Indian prisons, Delhi's Tihar Jail and West Bengal's Berhampore Central Correction Home, are doing just that by encouraging healthy practices of painting, sketching and performing theatre for inmates who are prepared to lead a new life.
Employing art and theatre as avenues for change, the two prisons are allowing creative freedom to prisoners in confinement. In return, the inmates also see it not just as a meaningful pastime, but a rehabilitative intervention and a possible vocation to take up after their jail term.
Suraj Prakash, an art instructor from the College of Art, has been teaching Tihar (Jail 4) inmates every week since June 2017, after several inmates were spotted doing amateur sketching and painting by the jail administration.
"To encourage them, Superintendent Rajesh Chauhan contacted instructors to teach them. The group has now snowballed from a handful to around 200, and over 20 have mastered it in less than two years," Prakash told IANS.
Equipped with an in-house art gallery now, the ‘Tihar School of Art' has sold close to 60 artworks since its inception, and even garnered Rs 5-6 lakh. According to Prakash, half the money from each sale is deposited into the respective inmate's account, and the rest goes into funding art activities.
A booth was dedicated to showing works of art by the inmates at the India Art Festival.
Among other works, deft illustrations and canvasses of Saraswati, Ganesha and Buddha now line the Tihar gallery walls, which can be accessed with permission. Programmes of yoga, dance and music also mark the prisoner's calendars now.
The second initiative, tagged as theatre therapy, started when theatre director Pradip Bhattacharya ventured into the Berhampore prison for a jail performance in 2006 where he saw gender-segregated cells with low levels of literacy among inmates.
On a proposal by the prison's Inspector General B.D. Sharma, Bhattacharya started working with the prisoners, many of whom were sentenced for life. What cemented their tie as director and actors was a meal he shared with them, which "changed their body language completely".
"Theatre is my weapon. It has transformed the lives of these people. They may have committed crimes, but the rehabilitation has been immensely successful," he told IANS.
While some prisoners were involved in land disputes, some were convicted for murder in a fit of anger. Bhattacharya said that they were not born criminals, but accidental ones, which is why their reform was easier.
A troupe of 26 actors from the Berhampore Repertory Theatre staged a play written by Rabindranath Tagore, "Jakshapuri (Raktakarabi)" on Thursday here, as part of a National School of Drama theatre fest. For Bhattacharya, who said Tagore was immediately relatable to the prisoners, understanding the cultural figure is not a matter of education.
"He is not a high-mounted photograph for them. He is their guru, Gurudev."
After staging over 50 shows of three Tagore productions in various locations across India, the troupe does plan on taking up theatre when they are free. "Theatre gives a peace of mind. I am relieved of all tensions when I act. I have found Bhattacharya, who is like my father," inmate-actor Sapan Mehena told IANS.
Bhattacharya, who also proudly pointed to two prisoners who fell in love during the rehearsals, also said that many are also taking to education. Mehena, for instance, has completed class 10 in jail.
Buddhadev Meta, one of the main characters of the play, said: "When I was sentenced to life, there was a depressing darkness all around, and I thought to myself that my life is over, but when the director encouraged us to do theatre, it was a new platform for living life altogether. I don't want to lose it now."
Meta, who also found his partner in a co-prisoner who played the protagonist Nandini, said that he has found his "sansar" (world), and for earning livelihood, Bhattacharya has given him a new avenue. He proudly added that he wants to continue with theatre even after he is free.
Meta also said that he is learning a few words of English, and his Bengali is now "completely clear", owing to theatre rehearsals.