“I know we think they’ve done wrong and deserve to be in jail. But they also have feelings and are under a lot of stress. Painting keeps them preoccupied,” says Kavita Shivdasani, founder, Dagar Pathway Trust. This trust, through its Art from Behind Bars initiative, has been hosting art workshops for inmates from Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail and Byculla jail, and Pune’s Yerwada Central Prison since 2009.
‘Leap of Faith’, the fifth exhibition of this kind, opened at the Kamalnayan Bajaj art gallery in Nariman Point on Monday, with 62 abstract paintings in acrylic on canvas. The paintings impress, with their flurry and fluidity of vivid hues, lines, dots, swirls, strokes, scribbles and other oddities. Starting from 2’x2’, they are priced between Rs 8,500 and Rs 25,000. All the proceeds from the sale, like with the previous exhibitions, will go into the bank accounts of the inmates, who can benefit from these earnings on being released.
The current display was a culmination of two-day workshops at the jails last year under the supervision from Shivdasani’s troupe. The theme was colour therapy — giving up form (landscapes and figures) to evolve into abstraction. Initially, even though volunteers stood around with abstract patterns on canvases, the inmates were hung up on drawing flowers, hills, valleys, the Buddha, ‘Save Our Trees’ slogans and other stuff that they already knew. “But I took a leap of faith in wanting them to attempt abstract and so I let them continue painting without telling them how to go about it,” recalls Shivadasani.
Actually, for the previous workshops, Shivdasani had only picked inmates who were skilled artists. For instance, Lalitha Gonugunta has an MA degree in Fine Arts and her self-portraits would reflect her morbid past and present. Sudeb Manmohan Pal, who experimented with fashion photography and attempted the Chandigarh Arts Board exams, is still serving his sentence and creates disturbing surreal works on foeticide and injustice to women.
But this time, Shivdasani wanted it to be an absolutely untrained bunch considering abstract art requires no prior training in figurative, and so chose inmates at random.
However, it was a pleasant surprise for those conducting the workshop to see the rigid forms of mountains, flags, rivers, etc, gradually evolve into shapes, concentric circles and flashes on paper by the end of day one. Instrumental pieces of music featuring the violin, piano and flute, fluctuating between being fast-paced and slow, must have also helped. The inmates gradually began enjoying themselves and creating textures using their fingers, sponges, combs, palette knives, felt pens, etc. “Later, some just threw canisters of paint on their paper and used their hands to spread the paint across. One female inmate thought the paints, the way they were laid out in little bowls, looked ‘yum like ice-cream’. The idea was not about making the paintings final and presentable but enjoy and let go,” says Kunj Mehta, the freelance graphics designer and visualiser who conducted the colour therapy sessions at Yerwada and Byculla jails. On day two, the inmates transferred the finalised patterns onto the canvas.
However, it’s also the students and their parents of Know Your Environment, an initiative that educates 4-14 year olds in art, nature, culture and community service that Shivdasani runs, who put their trust in the inmates. For every exhibition, the kids do a door-to-door collection of funds to buy art materials for the inmates, frames for the paintings and pay the gallery’s rent. Last time, the kids interpreted the surreal paintings of inmates as short stories, which became a book titled ‘Surrealist’.
This time, the kids and their parents even helped to cart the paintings from the Byculla jail and mount the paintings at the art gallery. The kids are also promoting the event through endearing video messages on the Facebook group’s page on why one must attend the show.
Rahul More, an ex-convict acquitted from Yerwada jail last year after 16 years of imprisonment, explains how the only canvas he created when he was in prison lacked the joyous riot of colours intrinsic to the five he created now for ‘Leap of Faith’. “When I was in prison, I would get overwhelmed with sadness. So my paintings had ‘sad’ colours. One needs a clean environment and some inspiration, neither of which was there in prison,” says More, who works as a night guard these days.
“Now my paintings are brighter, vibrant and beautiful. For me, Kavita ma’am is God. And I think even God feels like helping someone who is trying so hard despite the circumstances,” he signs off.
However, not all of Shivadasani’s prodigies have met equal fate. For instance, Parkal, whose sketches still grace the walls of Byculla jail, has broken off all contact with Shivadasani and art. “His sister tells me he’s become a recluse.”
The inmates now want to make this painting workshop a Sunday tradition. And in the spirit of nothing is impossible, Mehta quips, “We’ll probably do art installations next year.”