Art Behind Bars

Each of the beautiful artworks displayed on the Tihar Art Gallery walls not only offers an outlet to inmates, but gives a glimpse into their vulnerable human side

As we step into the Tihar Jail premises, we are greeted by large, colourful murals depicting Venice and its famed gondolas. A little further down the way is the Tihar School of Art with its now famous gallery complete with track lighting and the works. Looking at the scores of paintings and drawings covering the walls of the gallery—all of which are done by the prisoners—you’d think you were standing in the lobby of a plush setup in the Capital. This stuff is good. Like, gallery good. Each of the beautiful artworks displayed on the walls is powerful enough to tell a story. They go beyond the confines of an art room, taking on numerous forms capable of encapsulating some of the most basic desires of the human experience. It gives us a glimpse into the humanity of those behind bars, many of whom struggle with mental health and addictions. Many focus on nature, or portraits of family members or friends. Some are dark and uncomfortable. Others are heartbreakingly childlike. There are paintings in different mediums—oil, acrylic, watercolour— dealing with myriad themes: landscapes, Banaras ghats, city scenes, women, brightly coloured flowers, lots of Buddhas, and some pencil sketches of statesmen jostling for space on the wall. No mean feat. These are artworks by people, who are convicts but have retained the soft power, the feeling and the sentiment that is needed to create an artwork. Ramesh, Mohammad Ayub, Amit, Rohit and others have all poured their hearts on canvas. Be it flowers or the birds, each painting shows that humanity is living well inside the inmates who may at some point of time will be absorbed in the society, albeit a tad too difficult but certainly possible. “The aim to train the inmates interested in arts is to actually make them full-fledged artists and give them a means of livelihood, a vocation,” says Rajesh Chauhan, Superintendent, Jail No.4, which houses the art gallery. “Once they are released from here, they can earn a living with the right means and lead a respectable life.” Most of the 2,800 prisoners in this jail are under-trials with varied backgrounds and nearly 100 of them attend the art school, spending six to eight hours every day. Considered to be one of the biggest prisons in this part of Asia, Tihar is also popular for providing some unique solutions for recreational teachings. Besides learning jewellery design, some women inmates trained in the fashion lab of woman jail number 6 have been selected to design costumes for a Hindi feature film!

Art in prison, too, has been tried all over the world exploring its impact as an effective therapeutic and rehabilitative tool that offers a form of communication that transcends narrow perceptions. In fact, art therapy was first introduced in India over a decade ago by Banshi Dhar Sharma, ex-IPS, when he headed the Prison Directorate in West Bengal. He roped in Kolkata painter Chitta Dey to teach art basics to inmates at Kolkata’s Alipore Jail and once the idea took off, he tried the same in prisons across the country. Dey visited jails across West Bengal to pick and choose inmates with an “artistic streak”. An NGO sent canvas, paper, colours, pencils, crayons, pastel, erasers, brushes and pallete for the innovative project. Thus was born the Art School behind the high walls of Alipore Jail. Dey then brought a group from the Alipore Art School to Tihar for first of its kind art initiative jointly organised by Tihar Jail and Lalit Kala Akedmi – Tihar: Kalabhiyan 2017 – for five days in August last. Not just paintings, there are sculptures carved out of wood and metal by inmates Rafiq Salaam, Virender and Suraj. Adjacent to the gallery is the workshop where the artists are engrossed in work with inmates, perhaps more disciplined than the school kids. A beaming Chauhan is all praises for the inmates and the gallery, which he helped set up from scratch. It took almost 14 months to set up the gallery which was initially functioning from a 10x10 ft room. “We have helped several artists come out of the jail who are daring and creative at the same time,” says Dr Sushma Yadav, the art teacher at Tihar. Art has definitely proved to be therapeutic for the inmates as Chauhan triumphantly points out. “Earlier, the inmates would get upset and depressed and often cry. But now after their passion for art has come alive, they are out of depression. They are happier now.”

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