Jailhouse rocks

Heard of a rock concert in a jail? Or a band of inmates about to release their songs online? How about a troupe of dancers, many of whom have been convicted of murder, travelling across the country, putting up hit productions? Lhendup G Bhutia reports on how hardened criminals and hopeless undertrial prisoners holed up in the country's jails are finding new meaning through music, dance and theatre

Well-known Kannada theatre actor and director Hulugappa Kattimani once led a group of convicts from Bellary Central Jail to the hill temple of Lord Gomateshwara at Shravanabelgola in Karnataka. The convicts were staging a new theatre production and wanted a darshan of the lord. Very few police personnel accompanied the troupe and there were many opportunities to give them a slip. However, to the surprise of many sceptical journalists and authorities', all inmates returned to the prison at the end of the day.

Members of Bellary Central Jail perform the play Madhavi.
PICS Courtesy/S Radhakrishna

The story goes that after one of the performances, a surprised journalist could not hold himself back. He asked one of the convicts, "There are no handcuffs and there are several chances to escape.  Why did not you use this opportunity?" The inmate replied, "What kind of question are you asking? If I escape, who will play my role?"

This was in 2006. Kattimani, an artiste with the government-funded theatre institute Rangayana in Mysore, had been dedicating two months -- one month of annual paid leave and another with pay -- since 1997 to stage theatre productions with the inmates of Bellary Central Jail in Karnataka. It was a novel idea -- reforming convicts with the help of a stage and a script -- but its scope was limited to the confines of single model jail.

Now, 15 years after it first introduced theatre in Bellary Central Jail, Kattimani's NGO Sankalpa, which works with prison inmates, is taking another initiative. It is hosting four theatre festivals in four jails. While Belgaum Central Prison and Dharawad Central Prison put up successful shows of Pattar Mastar's Sangya-Balya and Chandrashekara Patil's Gokarnada Gowdashani, respectively last month, Mysore Central Prison is all set to hold a Kannada production of Shakespeare's King Lear in February.

Playing the lead role of Mahatma Gandhi in Kasturbaa, reportedly
had such an impact on this convict that he renounced
non-vegetarian food and now walks barefoot

Bangalore Central Jail will follow suit in March with Rangayana artiste Raghunandan's Adholokadalli Lukalus. This development, however, is not just a Karnataka phenomenon. Across the country, a number of jails are dabbling in the creative arts of theatre, music and dance to enliven and reform the lives of their inmates.

For instance, in October 2011, for the first time, fifty inmates from Kolkata's Alipore Central Jail, also popularly known as Presidency Jail, held four public shows outside their state in Powai, Thane, Vashi and Dadar in Mumbai. They enacted Rabindranath Tagore's Balmiki Pratibha, the story of Ratnakara,  a thug who later became Sage Balmiki and composed the Ramayana, a piece they have been wowing audiences with since 2007.

Well-known Kolkata-based dancer Alokananda Roy, who directed this piece with the inmates, says, "In 2007, when I first visited the jail (as a guest for an International Women's Day function), I saw a number of young men walking around aimlessly. They were convicts, many of them imprisoned for life.

They looked so dejected." Roy then approached BD Sharma, then Inspector General Correctional Services, West Bengal, with the idea of hosting dance workshops for both men and women inmates. Sharma was only too happy to oblige. Earlier that year, he had with the help of theatre professional Pradeep Bhattacharya, helped the inmates of Berhampore Central Jail (around 200 km away from Kolkata) put up a Tagore theatre piece titled Tasher Desh (Kingdom of Cards) for other inmates and staff of the jail. 

Roy, who is fondly called Ma by inmates, has helped put up over 65 shows of Balmiki Pratibha, and the group has generated over Rs 35 lakh from ticket sales. The money collected is being utilised to help in the reformation of convicts in West Bengal jails.

Members of The Flying Souls, including inmates Amit Saxena
(in white kurta) and Sunny Malik (on drums), with members
of Menwhopause during their rock concert in Tihar Jail on
December 21. PIC Courtesy/ Vijay Kate

The idea may be visionary, but it wasn't easy to execute. For instance, despite Roy's enthusiasm, she was unable to get male inmates to participate in the workshops. When asked, the men reportedly told jail authorities, "We are goondas (ruffians). Have you seen a goonda wear ghungroo (anklets used by Indian classical dancers)?"

Similarly, when theatre professional Aditi Desai (Executive Director of the Jashwant Thaker Memorial Foundation) wanted to hold a theatre workshop in 2010 in the Sabarmati Central Jail, no one was willing to participate. Desai, whose work centres around womens' issues and who has conducted a number of workshops with women, including those displaced by the 2002 Gujarat riots and those from rural areas, says, "Working with inmates has been my toughest assignment. There is so much pent-up anger, frustration and depression that often it looks hopeless."

While Roy incorporated the Kerala martial arts form of Kalaripayattu in her workshop and slowly began to win the confidence of the male inmates, Desai started slowly, making the inmates express themselves by supplying them with crayons and sheets of paper to draw and write. In the course of a few months, the inmates came out with their first magazine. During Diwali last year, they organised a rangoli competition and a show where they created music using jerrycans, pots, pans, spoons and various other kitchen utensils.

An inmate's drawing of Bai Yard, the women's barrack in
Sabarmati Jail. This drawing formed the cover of the jail's
first ever magazine Kasturba Ni Kotdiye Thi

At Tihar Jail in Delhi, famous for not just hosting some of the country's most notorious criminals but also correctional activities like yoga, meditation and creative arts, another major leap was taken when rock band Menwhopause performed in December last year. The band, known for its alternative music, put up a rock show with Flying Souls, a 10-man group consisting of convicts and undertrials serving sentences for murder, abduction, and drug dealing.

The concert was held on December 21, after a 20-day workshop with the members of Menwhopause. Anup Kutty, the lead guitarist of Menwhopause, says, "This was our most interesting show. When we met the inmates, many of them wanted to make music. We just helped them channelise it. Some of the equipment available in the jail was not that good. But then that's like every musician's story. Even we've seen those days."

Menwhopause was initially supposed to just put up a show, but after seeing the inmates' enthusiasm, the band successfully requested the prison authorities to allow them to hold a workshop and help inmates put up a show along with them. Kutty adds, "On the day of the performance, to see an audience of prisoners eagerly waiting for a rock show, the Flying Souls belting it out, making them dance and clap, all within the confines of a jail � it was just so surreal."

The Flying Souls has written two songs, and if all goes according to plan, in a few months it will be taken outside the jail premises into a recording studio where members will record two songs that they have written and composed, both of which, with the help of Menwhopause, will be released online.

According to Sharma, jails in India are desperately in need of such activities. "Where is the correction in our correctional facilities? Most of these inmates, 70 per cent of whom haven't even been proven guilty and are undertrials, live in hopeless conditions. Such activities not only help they stay occupied, they also help them raise their self esteem."

The former Inspector General, who is now Managing Director, West Bengal Police Housing Corporation, was reportedly turned down when he first mooted the idea of convicts being sent out of the jail premises to enact shows. It was only when he appealed to the then West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya that such permission was granted.

He says, "We need to provide such facilities; we need to show trust and reform them. Only then can they return to society as normal beings, and not worse off since they were imprisoned." Nigel Akkara, alias Vicky, is one such ex-inmate of Alipore Central Jail. 

The 32 year-old is a former student of Kolkata's reputed St Xavier's College and was imprisoned for almost nine years on a murder charge. While Akkara was initially reluctant to be part of the dance group, he is now so committed that even after his release in 2009 (on the grounds of lack of evidence), he tours with the inmates to play the protagonist's role of Balmiki.

"When Ma (Roy) first came to the jail, I thought she was just another NGO-type do-gooder. But then as I became part of the group, I realised she wasn't like that. She was telling us to have faith in ourselves. She was showing us how we can become artistes and reclaim our dignity," he says. While Akkara struggled to get a job post his release because of his prison background, he was able to set up his own company where he provides housekeeping and pest-control services to various Kolkata institutes. His employees include 16 former convicts and 20 former 'troublemakers' who often found themselves in a lockup, apart from 30 others with non-prison backgrounds.

Jail authorities and the artistes' involved claim to have seen a significant improvement in the mental condition of inmates who undergo such creative endeavours. In the case of Sabarmati Central Jail, the use of sleeping pills and anti-depressants has fallen drastically, while those in Alipore reportedly cannot wait for more shows to begin and rehearsals to take place.

According to Saggere Radhakrishna, a photographer and close friend of Kattimani, who speaks with the media on his behalf, one of the most unusual and heartwarming outcomes of the theatre productions came last year. A hardcore convict took his role of Mahatma Gandhi in the plays Kasturbaa and Basaveshwara in 2011 to heart. By the end of the year, he had become a vegetarian and started walking barefoot.

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