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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006, 03:40 GMT
India's prison theatre gives hope
Soutik Biswas
By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Berhampore, West Bengal

Chandana Khan
We need to do something positive to forget our past. That's what the play did for us
Chandana Khan
life prisoner

On a sprawling sun-washed courtyard ringed by dull red-brick cells in a prison in India, more than a thousand inmates are taking a break from their dreary lives and gathering for a special event.

Two dozen convicts of West Bengal's Berhampore prison are getting ready to stage a play under the watchful eyes of their fellow inmates, a theatre repertory director and guests.

This is an unique experiment in a country where prisons conjure up Kafkaesque visions of overcrowded cells and prisoners seething with anger and frustration over a painfully slow judicial system - 70% of 322,000 inmates in India's 1,135 prisons are awaiting trial.

The 24 actors for a performance of Tasher Desh (Kingdom of Cards), a satirical play by the bard of Bengal and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore are, however, a little different - most of them, including six women, are lifers, sentenced for murder and rape.

There are buntings hanging from the trees. Colourful masks plastered on the trunks make for an elegant backdrop to a whitewashed concrete 'stage'. Backstage, a group of inmates are togged out in sequinned costumes, sponge masks and green-and-black stilts.


The tension is palpable as the inmates limber up for the performance and mutter silent prayers.

Over the crackle of a microphone feedback, director Pradip Bhattacharyya loses his temper, shouts out an expletive and hollers out last minute instruction.

"Don't be scared, don't be afraid," tells the director to his troupe of hardened convicts turned performers.

Most of the actors are serving life sentences

Forty something Swarnendu Chowdhury, a baby faced science graduate with two daughters who is here for raping and attempting to kill a woman guest in a hotel he used to manage, is one of them.

"For the first time I don't feel like a prisoner. I think I am still of some use, says the convict who is playing the role of a king.

Diminutive and stocky Raghunath Mondal, 38, who is in gaol for a killing, says the long preparation for the play made him forget the tedium of prison life.

"Suddenly, our lives don't seem to be so boring anymore. Suddenly, I see inmates enthused as never before. I hope we can keep performing," he says.

For the women inmates, coming out of their shame and depression to face the world again has been a bigger challenge.

"I have a son and a daughter at home. I think about them all the time. I need to do something totally different to forget it all. I want to keep acting now," says Chandana Khan, who killed a relative.


It possibly made things a bit easier for director Pradip Bhattacharya to bring together a group of convicts to act in a play when he realised a few of them had dabbled in the arts.

Mondal had seen the play at his native Birbhum, home to Tagore's Visva Bharati university. Chowdhury sang at a hometown orchestra. Gopal Murmu belonged to an itinerant group of village singers and Ananda Bagdi used to work in jatra, popular village theatre. Sudharshan Bera coyly says he used to do "female characters" in village play.

Convict-actors in prison theatre in Bengal, India
Convicts say the play was a welcome diversion
But with most of the performers have poor reading and writing skills, Chakraborty rehearsed them through songs, exercises, theatre games, group workshops, painting and singing classes.

"They would ask questions, they would cry, they would fantasise during our elaborate games," he says.

"Once they were lying on the floor and I asked them to close their eyes and go on a magic carpet ride. After a while when I asked them what they had imagined, they said they had flown out of the jail and described in great detail what they'd seen outside."

This was something which would cause the jitters to prison officials who have traditionally resisted any changes in prisoners' life routines.

So when West Bengal's inspector general of correctional services, Banshi Dhar Sharma, thought up prison theatre in the state, jail officials balked at the proposal.

"Nobody wants to disturb the status quo. The moment you bring the prisoners together for some kind of activity with cooperation from the civilians from outside there are fears of jail breaks, and breakdown of authority," he says.

"But there is a first time for all things and we decided to go ahead and do it anyway".

Tricky issue

But it was not a smooth ride after director Chakraborty short listed 24 from the 50 convicts who had signed up for a theatre workshop in preparation and rehearsals began in full swing.

When 44-year-old convict Ehsan Ali cut off his beard for his role, there was some tension among the more devout Muslim inmates till others convinced them that it was for a good cause.

Prison theatre performance in Berhampore, Bengal
The performance was a rousing mix of dance, drama and music
Authorities panicked when four characters were required to wear 12ft-high stilts, fearing that they could easily climb over the prison's 20-ft-high walls. Eventually, the stilts were shortened by three feet.

Mixing men and women inmates - again a first -was another tricky issue because the two sexes have always been strictly segregated in different cell blocks and required a little getting around outdated colonial prison regulations.

In the end, the play that mixed rousing performances, competent singing, elegant and aesthetic open air stage design and frenetic dancing rocked the jailhouse on a mellow winter afternoon.

When it was all over, overwhelmed authorities promised to take the prisoners out for a performance in a local town theatre, and then try to take them to the big city in what could easily become India's first travelling prison theatre.

"We don't want to stop doing this. We want to keep performing. We want to keep telling people that we are not wasted, we are not evil," says Swarnendu Chowdhury.

If the inmates of Berhampore prison travel outside to perform in public, audiences will possibly realise the same.

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