When you walk into the Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery tomorrow and marvel at the Surrealist paintings, think of the dire circumstances in which they were created. The charcoals, for instance, the work of artist Baby John Parkar, were drawn in a cell crowded with other inmates at the Arthur Road Jail. In need of an easel, Parkal made use of flattened cartons as an alternative.
“When I first saw Baby John Parkar’s work in 2007, I was fascinated. I’d had no idea that there was an artist among the inmates at Arthur Road, but what came as an even bigger surprise was that there were several more across other jails in the region,” recalls Kavita Shivdasani, who organised the first Art From Behind Bars exhibition in 2009 to spread awareness about this talent and help the artists sell their work. “They may be unable to use the money they make during their imprisonment, but they have a small cache to fall back on when they’re released. In fact, an artist requested us to deposit his earnings to his mother’s account,” she adds.
The exhibition is the fourth of its kind and comes after a workshop was conducted for the inmates. “The artists had had little to no exposure to the art world. After the first set of exhibitions, I got five artist friends -- Vipta Kapadia, Kala Shah Amisha Mehta, Mohan Khare and Ganesh Sonsurka — to hold workshops at Byculla Jail in 2010 to introduce inmates to media and styles, including surrealism,” reveals Shivdasani. “Uddhav Kamble, then Inspector General (Jails) was kind enough to assemble the artists, three of whom have been acquitted since, from across Yerwada, Arthur Road and Nashik jail at Byculla,” she adds.
Shivdasani, who conducts classes with eight-14 year-olds under the banner of Know Your Environment, ensures her students are involved with the project too. “The first time around, the children went from home to home, collecting enough money to organise the exhibition. But this time, I wanted the children to be more involved. I showed them the paintings made by the inmates and got them to write a short story inspired by the art. The best of these stories have been compiled into a book titled Surrealist,” says Shivdasani, thrilled about the book launch tomorrow, which will have Sabira Merchant, Gieve Patel and Avaan Patel conduct readings of the short stories.
Of the 127 paintings on exhibit during the first three exhibitions, only 35 remain. Shivdasani hopes the fourth installment of 40 paintings, sees just as much success.