In his first opera, Balmiki Pratibha (The Genius of Valmiki) staged in 1881, Rabindranath Tagore described the spiritual transformation of the dacoit Ratnakar into saint Valmiki.
On Sunday, which marked the first day of the Durga Puja celebrations, 96 inmates of Kolkata's Alipore Jail enacted Tagore's story at a dance drama organised by the Powai Bengali Welfare Association (PWBA), which is organising the festival in Powai for the sixth year.
"This is the first time that the inmates have come out of their prison to perform at a public event outside Bengal. Despite the security threats, we decided to take a chance," said Odissi dancer Alokananda Roy, who choreographed the dance drama. "The perception of criminals in the minds of people needs to change. Nobody is born a criminal," she added.
While Roy enacted the role of Goddess Saraswati in the play, Nigel Akara (alias Vicky), 31, who was convicted in 1999 for murder, played Valmiki. "The theme of the play closely reflects the lives of the inmates. They have been practising for more than two years to perfect their act. At a personal level, they have also transformed as better human beings," she added.
The inmates comprising both, men and women, arrived in the city only hours before the act. What followed was a three-hour make-up and rehearsal session. "I had seen the dance drama in Shantiniketan in 2009. Inspired by the story of the inmates on stage, I decided to bring it to my fellow Bengalis in Mumbai," said Sourav Mitra, organiser, PWBA Durga Puja celebrations.
"Goddess Durga symbolises the victory of good over evil. The dance drama suited the occasion perfectly," he added.
The act was performed under heavy security cover. The organisers sought special permission from the home departments of West Bengal and Maharashtra for special security.
"The pandal was guarded by 550 private security guards, Mumbai policemen and sniffer dogs," said Mitra.
"Closed circuit television cameras were placed across the pandal and an online live streaming was made available for those unable to attend the programme," he added.