A brush with the law: Delhi jail uses paint to rehabilitate prisoners

The fruits of Tihar prison's enlightened regime are on display in a new exhibition. Andrew Buncombe reports
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The Independent Online

Some show bars and locked gates, others portray magical birds and beasts; many picture an idyllic colourful world away from the harsh, stark realities of their creators' lives. For the one thing all these paintings have in common is that they provide the young men producing them with a way of communicating their experiences inside South Asia's largest prison.

Delhi's sprawling Tihar prison was once notorious across the region. But this assorted collection of works that goes on display tomorrow is evidence of an ongoing effort that experts say has transformed the jail into a forward-thinking institution with rehabilitation programmes that would shame many institutions in the West.

For two years, a small team of artists and curators have been working with young inmates at Tihar to promote art as a means of dealing with the pressures of incarceration. As part of the project, they persuaded a number of India's leading contemporary artists to visit the facility on the outskirts of India's capital and work with some of the inmates.

Those behind the project hope that in addition to helping the inmates, the exhibition will open a window on the realities of life in jail. The paintings will go on display alongside works specially-produced by some of the artists who gave up their time to work with the prisoners. "It was very strange,' said Mumbai-based Chintan Upadhyay, one of the artists who met with the inmates. "Because we have seen all these jails portrayed in the cinema and in India, cinema is larger than life. But when I got there, it was completely different – you were seeing ordinary people. I felt lost."

The project was conceived by the art curators Anubhav Nath and Johny ML, who said they were interested in providing an insight into prison life for ordinary people as well as trying to help the inmates. The artists they took to the jail spent half a day with prisoners aged between 19 and 21 and discussed painting techniques as well the theory of art with them. They were also asked to produce a work for the exhibition.

"The artists did new works with the Tihar experience in their minds," said Johny ML, a Delhi-based critic and writer. "Not just the jail, but thinking about ideas of imprisonment, confinement and separation."

For Tihar – an institution once notorious for corruption and brutality and a place where prisoners such as the serial killer Charles Sobhraj were able to bribe their way to freedom – the project is the latest in a series of efforts to transform it. The process of transformation began under Kiran Bedi, who was India's highest-ranking female police officer and also served as the jail's inspector general before she retired. During her time at the jail in the early 1990s, she introduced literacy projects, drug rehabilitation, yoga and meditation until people started referring to the prison as "the Tihar Ashram".

Ms Bedi, who has written several books including an autobiography, It's Always Possible, also expanded the jail's library, talked directly with the inmates and restarted the practice of celebrating all religious holidays at the prison, which currently houses about 12,000 prisoners.

The art project has her backing as well as the support of the current head of the jail, BK Gupta. He said art was being used as part of a process to rehabilitate prisoners and to ease the hardships of incarceration. "The prisoners are very stressed. The art helps relax them," he said. "They are young people and they need some direction. They happen to be here because of things they have done but this is their solace."

Bose Krishnamachari is another of the artists involved in the project. Born in Kerala, the painter said he had previously visited a jail in the United States but that he had been surprised by what he had found at Tihar. He too said that he had been expecting a scene like those portrayed by Bollywood but instead, he discovered something closer to a "classroom".

As for the benefits for the prisoners, Mr Krishnamachari had no hesitation in acclaiming them. "Jail is an isolated place. By isolation, I mean the inmates are isolated from the mainstream life. So anything that comes from outside and meets them inside should be welcomed. Everything will have a deep impact on the minds of these young people," he said in an interview.

"Art can soothe the inmates, provided they are inclined to the finer sides of life. I don't believe that even if they have committed crimes they are totally devoid of finer senses."

The artist said he was under no illusions about the need for prisons or for the punishment of people responsible for events such as last year's terror attacks in Mumbai. Yet he said he believed jail must have a rehabilitative element – especially for younger prisoners.

"I found young people with not so much of a criminal bent. I could talk to some of them. They might have done something seriously wrong. But they are not hardened yet," he said. "Those who are not hardened criminals should be given a second chance and the hardened ones should be punished severely."

Thinking outside the cell

*The authorities in Naples have come up with a novel way of finding employment for ex-convicts, by hiring them as tourist guides in the city. Around 70 former prisoners now provide a number of services to visitors, including giving them security advice and even helping them cross roads. "It's true that we're entrusting tourists to former prisoners," official Corrado Gabriele told La Repubblica, "but who knows the risks of the city better than they do?"

*A group of Filipino prisoners became unlikely internet stars when a video of them dancing en masse to Michael Jackson's "Thriller", clad in orange jumpsuits, became a viral hit. The performance was the result of dance being introduced into the exercise routine at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre. The inmates have recently released a new Michael Jackson video, this time for "Dangerous".

*There were no yellow jerseys, or any form of competitive racing, in the inaugural Penitentiary Tour de France: not a great surprise, given the participants were 196 French prisoners. The cycling event, which took place in June, was split into 15 stages and covered 1,370 miles, with the inmates accompanied by prison guards all the way.