Art & Entertainment

Letters From Death Row: Art's Role In Changing Atmosphere In Prisons

The arts have a huge role to play in changing the atmosphere within prisons and in getting the world to engage with prisoners as people.

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Theatre artist Maya Krisha Rao during a solo act performance at IIC Delhi
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Amid the genteel chats before an exhibition at India International Centre (IIC), in Delhi, a silent screen outside the hall—displaying a presentation, attracting little attention—screams stories, pleas, and stats. “People on death row in India. 24.5 per cent, Scheduled Castes. 76 per cent, backward classes and religious minorities. 87 per cent, those with no criminal record,” reads one such slide. “Chitrabhanu has been on death row for 20 years,” says another. “He made a noose from his handkerchief to understand how it might feel to be hanged.” Cut to: three large clocks whose minute hands sweep back and forth, mimicking the absurdity of time inside the closing walls of a prison. A block of text fades out the rightmost piece: “I’m an unwanted, unclaimed person who has spent double the time in jail as he has on the outside. Now all I ask is that I either be released, or killed.”

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Organised by National Law University’s Project 39A, the presentation is part of an online exhibition (www.capitalletters.in) featuring art and letters by inmates on death row. Besides displaying them, the event includes performances by theatre artist Maya Rao and classical singer T M Krishna. Ten minutes before the scheduled start, a modest gathering has turned into a crowd, spilling more introductions, conversations, and laughs. Some attendees, standing near the front enclosure’s entrance, pore over the “prisoners’ ID cards” in a trunk. The flap cards, half the size of a palm, share more stories. “Chetan, Telangana. Born: 1986. Sentenced to death: 2021. Age at death sentence: 35,” says one of the covers. Its inside tucks a message by his mother underpinning his intellectual disability: “I do not think he even understands what a death sentence means or why he is being punished.”

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The attendees swell inside the hall. In no time, all seats are occupied. Many stand at the back; dozens sit on the floor in front of the first row almost touching the stage. Soon, there’s no place to sit, not even on the ground, or stand. As the attendees await the performances, they gather around an exhibit in the aisle, where inmates’ letters hang on rods. Some have handwriting so pretty they look like calligraphic marvels. Many unfold as entreatments (“Sir, I am a poor citizen and no economical condition to appoint private advocate at Supreme Court”). Some express gratitude (“I don’t find the words to give the reply for the kind feelings which were not in words but my heart feels it”). One request is almost entirely in Hindi except its most important line—“Please help me”—underscoring desperation so deep that it even has a linguistic component. There’s art—a peacock, a sparrow, a rose—and the sketch of a life that won’t be lived: a crescent-shaped moon, mountains, and a sky full of stars.

“What does it mean to be inside a prison, and what would art mean there?” Like his monologue, Krishna’s answers don’t plunge into sanctimony

And then, Rao comes on stage. Dressed in a white kurta and pyjama, she walks a few paces and sits on her heels. “Main yahan 9 saal se hun (I’ve been here for 9 years),” she begins, impersonating a male inmate. She measures her miniscule cell and says she tries to “not bash into the walls”. Over the next 25 minutes, she transforms into a fierce force, thundering the prisoner’s story, performing with her body. She arches her back. Her feet drum on the stage, drawing a feverish circumference. Her raised hands shake in the air, mimicking “washing the clothes of upper-caste inmates”. She collapses on the ground, then gets up and asks: “Why do I get beaten up when I ask for a doctor, judge saheb?” Sometimes the body itself is a character: “I can never sit comfortably in a chair anymore.” She talks about a common torture technique—another assault on the body: “Sugar poured all over you and then an army of ants let loose.”

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Even though Rao’s material is intense, she doesn’t let it lock her in a monotonous mode. So, at one point, this is how she makes a loaded statement: “74 per cent of prisoners on death row are bricklayers, auto rickshaw drivers, bus conductors, hawkers, manual scavengers—maybe even an LIC agent.” The audience laughs. Towards the end, she’s explicitly political, referring to how Bilkis Bano never asked for the death penalty of her family’s murderers. She ends with a plea: “You don’t have to like us, just [give us] a chance to live.”

Wearing a red lungi and a checked shirt, Krishna sits cross-legged on the stage and relays a story about a recent death in his family, which prompted many commiserations—even from those who didn’t know this individual. “But do we share the same level of sadness for every death?” he asks. “Death is graded: who dies, how, where, when, because of what, their social location. Everything determines whether death itself is of value.” He gives the example of Covid-19, saying it “blatantly told us that we don’t care if hundreds and thousands of people die if they don’t matter.” Such a society that grades everything, he adds, will naturally “not care” for inmates on death row. “There’s one more thing we need to address: that violence itself is our everyday habit,” he says, referring to the cruelties perpetuated by caste, class, and gender. “So discussing the death penalty as something horrible that is happening over there without connecting it to the way we live our lives is a big lie.”

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His performance is as charged—comprising a Perumal Murugan poem, a Sanskrit composition that spotlights society’s much-needed “ethical virtues and values”, and Ashoka’s edicts—making him dip into a state of sublime metamorphosis (where he seems to be performing for us, no one, and himself—all at once). After the event, he spoke to me about his non-profit Sumanasa Foundation’s collaboration with Project 39A, earlier this year, at the Puzhal Central Prison in Tamil Nadu. The six-month workshop aims to de-stress and train the inmates through music, dance, and visual art, aiming to replicate the model, in association with NLU, across different central prisons. “I’ve been talking about it with Anup [Surendranath, Project 39A’s Executive Director] since the pre-Covid days,” he says. “The arts have a huge role in doing two things: changing the atmosphere within prisons, as they don’t allow for humane, lived experiences. And, then, to get the world outside the walls to engage with people as people.”

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Before their pilot project ‘Art in Prisons’, Sumanasa Foundation and Project 39A conducted workshops with the wardens and inmates, materialising as a two-pronged probe: “What does it mean to be inside a prison, and what would art mean there?” Like his monologue, Krishna’s answers don’t plunge into sanctimony or self-righteousness. “It’s very easy for us artists to think that we’re doing something great. We are not. We are actually learning. Besides, the discussions among the facilitators have not ended. We had one the day before yesterday.” The police, the inmates, the prisons still exist, he adds, and so does their dynamics. “They are all human beings, including the police. The problem is not the individuals; the problem is systemic.”

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Capital punishment has been contentious for long, and even though it inspires sporadic impassioned conversations, a long sustained engagement with it, producing an event like this, is rare. “That’s so because we are a feudalistic and casteist society,” says Krishna. “And that’s why we don’t think it’s a big deal. That’s why we need to go back and ask, ‘What are we teaching in our schools?’ Because education itself, as an idea in this country, is fundamentally violent.”

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