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How Art is Reforming Prisoners, Giving Them Another Chance In Life

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.

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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. Pixabay

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.

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“Theatre is my weapon. It has transformed the lives of these people. They may have committed crimes, but the rehabilitation has been immensely successful.” Pixabay

“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.”

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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.
Pixabay

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.”

Also Read: Add Traditional Touch To Your Contemporary House

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. (IANS)

Next Story

‘The Vagina Monologues’ Becomes Global V-Day Movement That Encourages Women

“For me I grew up never saying the word vagina in my home, and I was told you can’t show your boobs, society makes you feel shame that our bodies are dirty - a lot of women feel like they are second class citizens,”

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“But then I reminded myself, yes this is provocative, but this is about sexual liberation and understanding women’s right to know about their bodies,” said Phoo. Pixabay

Before 22-year-old Phoo Myat Thwe stepped on stage last night to read a monologue in downtown Yangon, her hands went cold.

“I suddenly didn’t know if I could do it – utter moans of sexual pleasure on stage,” said Phoo, who read the story ‘The woman who loved to make vaginas happy,’ exploring women’s pleasure.

“But then I reminded myself, yes this is provocative, but this is about sexual liberation and understanding women’s right to know about their bodies,” said Phoo.

This week was the first time the feminist play ‘The Vagina Monologues’ was performed in Burmese in public.

Hoots of laughter erupted, jaws dropped and all eyes were glued to a small black stage on a rooftop in Yangon, as Myanmar women of all ages took to the stage to read stories that explored the taboo issues of menstruation, consent, sex work and reproduction.

The play was written in 1994 by American playwright and activist Eve Ensler, after she interviewed women of different ages, races and sexualities. It became an instant hit.

“For me I grew up never saying the word vagina in my home, and I was told you can’t show your boobs, society makes you feel shame that our bodies are dirty – a lot of women feel like they are second class citizens,” said Phoo, who is an art writer when she’s not on stage. “It’s vaginal liberation, it discusses vaginas in a way that we normally wouldn’t speak about them.”

Just a play?

The monologues aim to give a voice to women beyond the barriers of race or religion.

Growing up in conflict-ridden Meiktila, Pyay Oo May told the audience at Tuesday night’s opening performance that she was inspired to perform on stage as she has experienced discrimination from a young age.

When authorites came to impose a fine because her all female family couldn’t volunteer anyone to join the rotational security watch duty in their village, they made loud jokes, so that others in the neighborhood could hear. “It was a kind of trauma,” she said.

Although many of the monologues are comical, some explore difficult and harrowing experiences, such as rape during the Bosnian war in the monologue, ‘My Vagina was My village.’

Pyay Oo May said this was the hardest story to listen to. “It was very painful, I feel the girl [in the monologue] is hopeless and [has] lost everything — she is physically alive, but psychologically dead,” she said.

Women react at a Burmese language performance of "The Vagina Monologues,' in Yangon, Myanmar.
Women react at a Burmese language performance of “The Vagina Monologues,’ in Yangon, Myanmar. (VOA)

A global V-Day movement

In Myanmar, rape has been used as a weapon of war recorded by many women’s rights groups across the country. Women’s rights groups such as the Karen Women’s Organization have documented these abuses and called for an end to military impunity for abuses committed against all women – Karen, Kachin, Shan and Rohingya.

The Vagina Monologues has become a global V-Day movement that encourages women around the world to perform the monologues as a benefit performance to raise funds and consciousness about ending violence against women.

This year, the funds in Myanmar will go to two groups raising women’s rights in ethnic areas; The Karen Women’s Organization and Ninu Women, a group that supports Chin women fighting for equal inheritance rights for women and an end to bride prices.

When asked for her thoughts on the show, founder of Ninu Women, Mae Len Nei Cer, said: “Only one word – revolution!”

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When I do trainings there is so much people don’t know, they think menstrual blood is dirty and that women can’t get pregnant if they don’t have an orgasm.” Pixabay

Giving a voice to all women

Last year, over $3,500 were raised for Strongflowers Sexuality Education from the performances when it was performed in English for the first time.

Strongflowers founderDR Thet Su Htwe said she was at first scared to speak on stage about her work. “For me the word vagina is too sensitive in our society, even if it is in English,” she said.

But after reflecting on the education gap about sexual and reproductive health across the country, she decided she would do it. “When I do trainings there is so much people don’t know, they think menstrual blood is dirty and that women can’t get pregnant if they don’t have an orgasm.”

Translation challenges

But choosing a word in Burmese as the translation for vagina wasn’t that straight-forward.

Each performer translated the monologue themselves or worked in a team. Phoo said it was challenging to choose a word that captured the tone in Burmese in conservative Buddhist Myanmar.

She chose ‘a-sae’ for the clitoris, ‘a-phote’ for vagina because men usually use them in a sexual way, but she wanted to take back ownership of the word and bring a positive energy to it. Usually women use a polite phrase of ‘Main-ma-koe’ which translates as women’s body, but Phoo wanted to choose some more striking words.

Also Read: “We Can Make Difference By Rendering Services To The Women And Children” All-female Legal Group Fights In Sierra Leone

Another performer, Aye Nilar Kyaw, said her friends are too shy to talk about vaginas, so she hopes “if people from Myanmar come here, and even if they learn the word vagina tonight, I am happy with that.”

Feminist Activist Nandar, producer of The Vagina Monologues in Yangon, said she hopes the stories will reconnect women with their bodies to feel proud.

“For me, it’s an important reminder for Myanmar society to respect women’s bodies and listen to their stories, we need to start a conversation,” she said. (VOA)