August 15, 2020
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Skylight On The Fourth Wall

Prisoners in some Karnataka jails find there is life after crime: in the therapeutic arms of theatre

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Skylight On The Fourth Wall
Pranav Purushotham
Skylight On The Fourth Wall
Shakespeare knew it. Rajesh Khanna mouthed it. Bosses of high-security prisons in Mysore, Bangalore and Bellary have now realised it: all the world’s a stage. And this stage, presently, is redeeming the lives of hundreds of inmates in these jails of Karnataka, not only improving the quality of their days without freedom, but also preparing them to lead a useful, productive life once they return to the wide, wicked circus outside.

It’s a unique programme consisting of a 45-day workshop, conducted by the prisons department and Sankalpa, an ngo set up for the prisoners’ "reformation through theatre". In addition to nurturing their dramatic talents, the workshop puts prisoners through yoga, meditation, painting, sculpting and sundry other therapeutic mediums. It also helps them draw up a course of employment ahead of their release from prison.

Hulugappa Kattimani, 42, student of the late theatre personality B.V. Karanth, anchors the workshops. Prisoners learn the ropes of drama from him and go on to climb them in a variety of ways, giving us Kannada versions of Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet and the late Bhisham Sahni’s Madhavi along the way. The last was telecast by Bangalore Doordarshan recently, making celebrities out of hardened criminals. Last year, inspired performances by a group of lifers won rave reviews at the National Theatre Festival on Shakespeare’s plays in Kasargode, Kerala.

Interaction with prisoners has provided Kattimani with new insights into human nature and its responses to an aesthetic calling. "When we involve ourselves in the experience of famous works of sensitive playwrights, we are reborn. This rebirth is experienced not only by the actors on stage but by the audience as well." All geared up to broaden the horizons of his born-again charges, Kattimani is ready with a plan: "I want to take them to Delhi to participate in the next NSD theatre festival."

Such an interesting turnaround for the inmates has prompted the prisons department to carry the ‘experiment’ forward to all district prisons. Says S.N. Borkar, DGP (prisons), Bangalore. "I am impressed with the performances. I’ve asked Kattimani to train them for a stage version of V. Shantaram’s Do Aankhen, Baarah Haath. The government is keen to send them to other jails so that people get to see their performance."

For the prisoners, all of this is a revitalising break from the monotony of jail life. Initial reluctance has in no time changed into passionate embrace. Like for 65-year-old Kempamma: "When they came to our cell asking us to join this workshop, I ran and hid inside the toilet because I didn’t want people to see me. Now, I am on stage for Madhavi and have the confidence to face people." Ditto for Venkatalakshmi, 27: "The plays have helped us gain confidence, a semblance of discipline and respect for others in our cell." Both the women are serving life sentences for killing their husbands.

The acting bug has bit some inmates so hard that they are thinking of making a career out of it. Like Yellappa, who has served nine-and-a-half years for bumping off a political rival, or H.N. Vijaykumar and his 28-year-old son H.V. Vinod Kumar, both implicated in the murder of plantation workers—they plan to launch a theatre group once they complete their terms and then live on its earnings.

There are many firsts here. The programme is the first-ever theatre-based personality development initiative. It is also the first time men and women prisoners have worked as a team and actually benefited from the experience. "We do see a change in the prisoners’ attitude towards each other and towards society. We want them to go back with the message that crime doesn’t pay," says N. Jayaramaiah, dig, Prisons. If you want to help in any way, contact Hulugappa Kattimani in Mysore. Phone: 2515838.

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