With the soft winter sunlight on his back, 83-year old Srikanta Haldar holds the brush with steady hands. A life convict for murder housed in Alipore central jail for the past two decades, he now spends time expressing his mind on canvas.
The hands that once committed heinous crimes are now creating artworks on canvas, and their work is already finding a market. Paintings of prison inmates of Bengal that have been showcased in exhibitions will now be sold online.
Talks are already on some companies that are ready to sell the artwork.
“Since 1995 I am in Alipore central jail. I am 83 now and a life convict, who has to spend the rest of his life in jail. I took up painting just to forget where I am and where I have to stay my remaining days. Every day I devote two hours in the art school inside the jail. Rest of the time I take the canvas along me to the ward,” Haldar told HT.
As many as 29 convict-painters took part in the Prison Art Festival organised at Mohor Kunj, a park in south Kolkata where HT caught up with them. The festival, a rare treat for the inmates who got to paint in the open, was heavily guarded by over three dozen armed policemen and jail officers.
“Talks are on. We have started showcasing paintings by prison inmates online apart from exhibitions. Nearly a dozen successful exhibitions have been held and over 40 paintings sold. Of the sale proceeds, 40% goes to the painter and 60% to prisoners’ welfare fund,” said Chitto Dey, Kolkata-based sculptor and founder of Flight to Harmony Foundation.
Dey is involved in the prison art project in Bengal since 2007 and now teaches painting in prisons in neighboring states like Jharkhand and Bihar.
“Through art they break the confines. The exhibitions help in evaluation of the work and also contribute to the integration with the mainstream. Interestingly, the themes of these artists are different from artists who live a free life,” added Dey.
There are 32 convict artists in Bengal.
“It has been a year since we got associated and have been able to sell five/six paintings. So far 60 paintings are on offer. One of the paintings fetched $250. Apart from customers in India, we are getting queries from Dubai and Milan. These paintings are different since the artists have a different perspective of the world from behind the bars,” said Rishi Jain, director Artmicado.com, a startup that sells paintings online.
A project launched in Alipore Central Jail gives training in painting and allied art for prisoners in Bengal. An art school has been set up inside the jail and the authorities provide the raw materials. The painters have picked up skills in different media such as water colour, oil and acrylic.
Apart from painting, sculpting on stone, making clay and cement models are taught behind bars.
“I am destined to a life behind the bars. I had an interest in art before I was sent to jail. Here I learnt painting and to make clay models,” said 41-year-old Chandan Chanda, who was part of the team that went to Rashtrapati Bhawan in August 23, 2008 to gift an artwork to former President Pratibha Patil.
“I was convicted in 2009, and since then I have been in jail. I took up painting casually, but now I love it. This helps me escape the environment I am in. I draw landscapes, birds, anything I can dream of the outside world,” said Nitai Ghosh, 63.
The youngest of the convict-painters is 25-year-old Sunny Gossain. His address in Presidency Central Jail.
“You never know, I can earn respect and money through painting once I finish my term in jail and go out. It also gives me the opportunity to leave the jail a couple of times a year and step into the world outside like I am doing now in the park,” said Sunny while applying finishing touches to his canvas.