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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

On The Wings of Arts


A recent art exhibition in Kolkata displaying the works of prison inmates provided evidence of the liberating and empowering influence of the human imagination. A report by Snehangshu Adhikari
SNEHANGSHU ADHIKARI | New Delhi, December 27, 2013 12:32
Tags : On The Wings of Arts | World Human Rights Day | Mohd Rashid | Nandita Saha | Paltu Biswas | Uma Siddhanta | Subrata Ganguly | Pallavi Majumder |

This is no ordinary art school. The ageing painter wielding the brush is very special indeed. He is Mohd Rashid, Bowbazar blast convict and a lifer at the Alipore Central Correctional Home. He seems to be completely lost in his ‘new’ world.

And Mantu Mondol (34), who has recently been released from a correctional home, is perhaps far more comfortable while painting Buddha. After being released, he has started his own ‘Art School’ in South Kolkata.

Nandita Saha (25) and Rimpa Chakraorty (27), both lifers and inmates of Alipore Women’s Correctional Home, are also trying their very best to paint their own wings. It is a testimony to the fact that art does not merely imitate life, but can also have a liberating, even empowering, influence on human livess, including those spent in the physically confining surroundings of correctional homes.

From World Human Rights Day, Kolkata witnessed an exceptional week-long exhibition of 36 artworks created by inmates of Alipore Central Correctional Home, Alipore Women's Correctional Home, along with the works of some mainstream artists.

The landmark exhibition showcased works produced during a two-day art camp held in Victoria Memorial Hall last year. The exhibits included paintings by the likes of lifers and under-trials Mantu Das (71), Banshi Nath Gayen (71), Dilip Let (40), Nandita Saha (25) and Paltu Biswas (63). The exhibition gave Kolkatans a glimpse of the indomitability of the human spirit and imagination.

As many as 11 of the participants were still serving life sentence. Along with some 15 mainstream artists such as Uma Siddhanta, Bipin Goswami, Ashok Mullick, Ajay Ghosh, Subrata Ganguly and Pallavi Majumder, the exhibition also showcased works of six painters who were recently released from jail. Nine of the prisoners were from Alipore Central Jail and four from Alipore Women’s Jail. This ‘Freedom through Art’ exhibition was a collaboration between the Directorate of Correctional Services, Government of West Bengal and the ‘Flight to Harmony’ Foundation, Kolkata.
While briefing the media, the secretary and curator of Victoria Memorial Hall Jayanta Sengupta said, “It is very apt that this exhibition commenced on 10 December, 2013, Human Rights Day, because it not only fosters inclusivity by facilitating the integration of convicted persons into mainstream society, but also enables them to find dignity and fulfillment through their creative expressions.”

Talking about their dream and destination, the brain behind the workshop Chitta Dey, founder-director of Flight to Harmony, revealed, “Our single aim is only to maintain the positive energy, talent and productivity that will facilitate the whole process of rehabilitation for sure. I also believe that such Art-camp cum exhibition with professional artists would certainly provide proper exposure that they need to develop their skill as also boost their confidence when they would interact with the outside world.”

Such initiatives aimed at motivating and changing the mindset of inmates languishing behind bars are not new in Bengal. It has nothing to do with the changed political scenario. Rather after the enactment and implementation of the West Bengal Correctional Services Act 1992, the term ‘jail’ has been replaced with the phrase ‘Correctional Home’ in the state and the focus has shifted from ‘punishment’ of the offenders, to their ‘correction’.

Some six years back when the Left was in power, and the minister concerned was Biswanath Chowdhury of CPM, Bengal started applying cultural therapies to the inmates. Initially with painting workshops and then followed by dance-dramas under the supervision of Alokananda Roy, recitation under Bratati Banerjee, Jatra under Tarun Tapan Ganguly and so on.

“In the meantime Parivartan has taken place in the State, but the process has always been uninterrupted,” affirmed Mr. Dey. But the beginning was never a cakewalk for Chitta Dey. Going back to the earlier days of 2007 when he first initiated such cultural-therapy meant for inmates, he really had something interesting to share.

With some 40 inmates, Dey started the workshop. The inmates were simply asked to paint the sky. But unlike the others and out of utter revelation, Mr. Nishith Das suddenly turned out to be a rebel. And being asked about his intention he confirmed, “I really don’t have any sky, sir… so, how can I paint the sky.” That set Dey thinking and he decided to extend the scope of his workshop.

But why art? Terming ‘color therapy’ as an integral part of ‘cultural therapy’, the then IG (Prison) BD Sharma said, “Art is always liberating. And when the artist is engaged in creation, even temporarily, he is transported to another world of imagination.”

Art opens up mental spaces and prisoners who paint are able to, in their minds, dissolve their prison surroundings. When they put paint brush to canvas, there is no stopping them. The use of colors also evokes altered psychological states of mind, which may range from euphoria to ecstasy.

“Neighboring states like Bihar and Jharkhand have already started following the West Bengal model in their prime correctional homes. Fifty inmates from Birsa Munda Central Correctional Home Ranchi have already given their consent to join such an art workshop,” confirmed Dey, who also dreams of setting up an exclusive training centre cum rehabilitation centre for the inmates.

The Supreme Court has given a very clear guideline in the Sunil Batra vs Delhi administration case that anyone’s conviction for a crime does not reduce the person into a non-person and that all other freedoms, including the freedom to the minimal joys of self expression and to acquire skills and techniques tailored to the limitations of imprisonment belong to him. But would that ever be able to bring any change to the inmate’s life?

Talking to TSI, Mohit Ranadip, an eminent psychiatrist of Kolkata, sounded quite enthused at the government’s approach: “Obviously it’s a good thing to them. It has done a lot to build up the self-esteem of the inmates. But rather than mere therapy I would like to term this as a way to provide them a space to ventilate their inner feelings.”
He continues: “And while going through such initiatives, whether it is painting or participating in any other cultural activities we have noticed amazing changes in the participants. We noticed their sense of gloom began gradually to give way to hope as they got involved in the art workshop. Behavioural changes have also been noticed throughout the process.”

He proposes that an ‘Art of living’ course be introduced for the mental well-being of the inmates of correctional homes in Bengal. On the basis of his own experiences at the Kalyani Sub-Correctional Home, he however confirms that the notorious nexus between pharmacists, jailors and doctors is one the worst obstacles to this positive approach.

But Chitta Dey, art therapy mentor, himself pointed out the flip side  – “All is well of course, but the saddest part is we are yet to feel their pain. Though I have never tried to dig up their miserable past, sometimes they do pour their hearts out. And the point is, after a 9-to-5 art workshop all of us have a definite destination to return to – home. But for them, nobody is waiting. And they are destined to go back to their confinement. This really hurts.”

We have to move on with such life-evaluating programmes on a regular basis not only with computer-training, art, dance-drama or whatever we observed in recent years. We have to go beyond these and must try our level best to leave a space to be lived in after imprisonment for these jailbirds,” he said.

He added: “We have to seriously think if such initiatives would really be a helpful to the convicts in terms of getting them mainstreamed in society. Is our society mature enough to welcome them back?” Despite all the progress made, the question mark is inevitable.

The art for freedom of the mind experiment, for all the problems that lie in the way, has found space in Bengal in a way that cannot but have far-reaching and positive consequences. For somebody like Chitta Dey, the success of the exhibition can only be encouraging. But the real success of this initiative will come only when it moves out of the confines of the correctional facilities and into the lives of people at large. It calls for sweeping societal changes. Dey is chipping away. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017