Encountering talent, hard work and hope in an unlikely setting
In August this year, I was invited to be chief guest at the closing of an art event, Kala Abhiyan, at an unusual venue: Delhi’s Tihar Jail. A 10-day-long art workshop had been held in collaboration with the Lalit Kala Akademi and the results were being exhibited at a cultural festival. CS Krishna Setty, the new chairman of the Akademi, is giving enthusiastic support to these ongoing projects, and several visiting artists are giving of their expertise and time. The sculpture studio has impressive work on display, both realistic and abstract. Abundant quantities of clay and armatures are supplied by the jail and it is evident that the students are encouraged to express themselves freely.
A visit to the jail is instructive. It is situated in salubrious surroundings, the 400-acre campus brimming with old trees, manicured hedgerows and palm-flanked avenues. A dedicated director general, Sudhir Yadav, presides over the whole complex with the gentle air of an affectionate schoolmaster, while running a tight ship with no lapses in security.
We were escorted to the newly constructed Tihar Art School, which incorporates classrooms and a museum. The Lalit Kala Akademi had partnered to make both the workshops and the museum a success. The museum section would be the envy of many a commercial gallery with its white walls, track lighting and gleaming wooden floors. In the well-appointed galleries, canvas prints of master paintings from Lalit Kala’s collection hung side by side with surprisingly professional paintings by the prisoners. This is a brand new building where art classes are held regularly, with an ample supply of paint, canvases and other facilities for the making of sculpture or installation art. After breakfast and a yoga session, prisoners can come and spend their time here till lunch.
After this centre was inaugurated by the Minister for Culture we proceeded to visit the environs of Jail No 2 (which houses the most hardened criminals), where virtually hundreds of paintings, sculptures and installations were on display. Their source material is mainly photographs seen in journals in the library—many of the works are somewhat photorealist in nature. A brilliant painting shows Sachin Tendulkar in action while a small girl looks on wistfully (she was apparently the little sister of the artist). Religious and nationalistic themes are also popular. As can be imagined, the god Ganesh is another favoured subject. However, it is the handling of pigment and competent brushwork that impressed me most. There is a plan to formalise the courses taught at the art school by offering a diploma and degree in art from an open university. Artist Veer Munshi had spent a whole week creating a large installation with the lads from the welding department. Gaily coloured shamianas and flower bedecked plazas lent a festive air to the exhibition. Most of the paintings were surprisingly cheerful, brightly coloured and optimistic.
Then it was time for a “cultural evening”, when prisoners performed tribal dances, patriotic dramatic pieces, acrobatics and poetry readings. There was also a performance by an excellent rock band. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves, cheered on by the families of the convicts who were invited to the event—a rare gesture by the jail authorities. A young Nigerian woman belted out Bollywood songs with gusto in a perfect Hindi accent and a wheelchair-bound young man had the audience loving his beautiful voice. The costumes and makeup were lavish. I was moved to tears at the dance item performed by the youngest group, from Jail No 5. How had these baby-faced youngsters landed themselves in jail? What terrible crimes had they committed? I hope these teens will not waste their years here but will benefit from the excellent, free educational facilities provided. They could pass school, gain a degree or acquire a skill in classrooms that teach welding, bakery, weaving, carpentry and other skills. I hope the judiciary accelerates judgements on these undertrials so that they don’t spend their entire youth behind bars, simply waiting for their trials to come up.
Extremely impressive are the well-equipped classrooms where prisoners can learn and earn. Products made in Tihar Jail are sold at outlets across Delhi. I am sure that the excellent art, craft and industrial projects in the jail will go a long way in the eventual rehabilitation of prisoners so that they can venture into the outside world armed with a skill. This is an excellent model for other penitentiaries in the country.
It was ultimately a visit full of surprises. I was particularly touched by the gift of a pen-and-ink sketch of me done by one prisoner—an excellent likeness though he had never seen me in person. I had expected a gloomy and grim affair but, instead, encountered an evening of great energy and verve, leaving me with a sense of gratitude that there is somewhere, sometimes, some good news.
This article was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.