Art behind bars: When Delhi’s Tihar Jail inmates wield the brush
For inmates at Tihar Jail in Delhi, art is a way to come to terms with confinement, and an opportunity to get a better insight into their lives and relationshipsdelhi Updated: Sep 18, 2017 12:31 IST
Rendered in fiery colours, it is quite a meditative painting: the figure of a man behind the bars up to the eyes, the bars ending where his forehead begins. The head is shown as a rising wave of colourful cloud that transcends the prison walls. “One can imprison a body, but not mind. This is the idea behind my painting,” says Mohammed Ayub, 28, his face reflective as he explains his work. Another painting by him shows a young couple having a candlelight dinner. “The man in the painting is me; I always wanted to have a candlelight dinner with my wife. But just when I was about to get married, my life fell apart.”
Ayub is an inmate at Delhi’s Tihar jail and faces murder charges. For him and many other inmates like him, art is a way to come to terms with confinement, and an opportunity to get a better insight into their lives and relationships.
Ayub does not want to talk about the murder charge he is facing. He points out that he became an artist in prison – and now wants to remain one all his life. The gallery where his work is on display is inside Tihar School of Art, situated within the high barbed walls of jail number four.
The art school inside the jail is quite a plush place—it has classrooms with projectors, workshop rooms, a sculpture studio, a gallery with track lighting, a foyer and a lawn in the front. Paintings and sculptures by inmates adorn the walls and the other spaces. Inside, young men facing charges from murder to attempt to murder to dacoity sit on the floor, hovering intensely over canvases and sheets of paper. Many of them are drawing figures of Gandhi.
Their paintings done in different mediums—oil, acrylic, water paint—deal with myriad themes: streetscapes, metro trains, portraits of women, the ghats of Banaras, landscapes.
And there are lots of Buddhas.
“Painting the Buddha gives me peace of mind,” says Arun Kumar, an undertrial facing dacoity charges. “Ever since I took up the paint and brush, I forgot the emptiness in my life here, the pain of living away from my dear and near ones.”
The idea behind the art school, says Rajesh Chauhan, superintendent, jail number 4, is to help inmates use their time constructively. It is also, he points out, a part of their reformation and rehabilitation. “Those who have joined art school are no more angry, no longer pick fights. Painting has a cathartic effect on them. Jail can be especially tough for those who know they are accused of a crime they did not commit,” says Chauhan. “Art helps them cope.”
Most of the 2,800 prisoners in jail number 4 are undertrials with varied backgrounds and 100 of them attend the art school, spending six to eight hours every day. Many artworks of inmates stand out for technique, composition and originality, and a lot of them depict how a sudden turn of events can turn lives upside down, and what it means to be a victim of circumstances.
Chauhan, who is quite proud of his prison artists, says he wishes to tie up with an educational institute for issuing a diploma in art to inmates trained at the Tihar school.
Over the past few months, Tihar inmates have been trained first by a group of postgraduate students of the College of Art, Delhi, and then by well-known artists associated with the Lalit Kala Akademi at a five-day workshop. The Akademi donated to the Tihar school of Art a few digital reproductions of artworks by famous artists such as F.N. Souza, apart from reference books and films made on eminent artists to inspire the inmates. Recently, it organized an exhibition of artworks by prisoners at Rabindra Bhavan.
Their current teacher, Sushma Yadav, an artist, says that the biggest challenge of teaching art to inmates is to get them interested in it. “Some of them are very talented, disciplined and fast learners. Art gives them a sense of self-worth. The artworks the inmates have created also show their humane and creative side,” says Yadav.
As we talk, Amit Kumar, an inmate facing attempt-to-murder charges, shows Yadav a landscape done in water colours. She asks him to bring in more colour contrast in the painting. Kumar clearly relishes working in water colours – in fact, the school walls have many watercolour paintings by him, including one depicting a metro station and a scene from a Paharganj street, where he was born and brought up. Kumar talks like a seasoned water colour artist. “I love the texture of water colours and the effects they can create are amazing. Besides, water colours are pretty unpredictable and you have to learn to go with the flow,” says Kumar, daubing a thin layer of dark green onto the leaves of a tree in a landscape he is currently painting.
Most of the inmates never held a brush before coming to jail, and now they want to take up art as a career. Ramesh Kumar, 23, who is facing murder charges, says he wants to earn his living as an artist. He proudly shows a painting of a ghat in Varanasi, which he frankly admits is part copy of a work he saw in a newspaper. “Art has helped me forget memories that otherwise made me miserable every moment,” says Ramesh, who has been in the prison for over four years and hopes to be out on bail soon. Rohit Parcha, an inmate who loves to paint landscape, also wishes to explore art as a career option. And why not? Art, he says, has altered him as an individual. “Earlier, I was often angry and irritable, and would pick up fights every day. Now I try to make everyone laugh by cracking jokes all the time. Art has done this to me,” says Parcha who, like many other inmates, is facing murder charges.