Life behind bars hasn’t restrained their creative streak. Such creativity, according to Akshar Vishwa Ka Tosh Aivam Kosh or Avitoko, the four-year-old organisation that conceived the sammelan, provides a much-needed support system to individuals as well as society. After gifting these prison poets the satisfaction of reciting their verse in the presence of veterans, Avitoko plans to publish their work, an idea jail authorities have welcomed. Avitoko believes in expression as a cathartic booster and has successfully used art, theatre and literature with mainstream and special children (like orphans or the mentally challenged), marginalised people, women, youth, even corporates to help them understand themselves, identify their strength, kill inhibitions and become confident. "As media of change, they can help develop positivism and banish negativism," says Vibha Rani, Avitoko founder-secretary and a Hindi and Maithili playwright-author. "They aid self-actualisation and create a person within a person."
As Avitoko’s single-handed driving force, 45-year-old Vibha has turned activities like painting and collage-making into valuable modes of expression for children and grown-ups alike. Theatre, on the other hand, helps them hone their speaking skills, put forth their ideas and deal with issues bothering them. Children have overcome problems like shyness and stammering to excel in extra-curricular activities. The youth have chosen careers that their innate talents are best suited to. Women have enhanced their personality by getting rid of "unnecessary guilt" they often cage up within. "Nobody likes sermons nowadays," says Vibha. "Our participatory approach opens them up." That’s why Avitoko only facilitates while participants manage everything from script and dialogue to props and action. The organisation encourages talent, be it through annual playwriting competitions or exhibitions of participants’ works. Yet, many can’t readily appreciate Avitoko’s work, leaving it dependent for funds and help from a handful of like-minded people.
Avitoko decided to work with prisoners because social and legal barriers make it difficult to bring inmates into the mainstream. There are so many talents behind those bars. Take the case of Ramesh Owale and Rahul More, both in their thirties, serving life sentences in the Thane and Byculla jails for over a decade. Owale recently won a special award at a national painting competition. "His firm lines, befitting an artist, astonished the judges," recalls Vibha. More is a gifted Warli painter, he has taught the art to other inmates and wants to take it to prisoners elsewhere. With Avitoko’s encouragement, he is also writing about himself.
Inmates of the Thane, Byculla and Arthur Road jails have also staged plays. "They innovate brilliantly," says Vibha. "Once, they made a policeman’s batons out of paper and created sounds to make them seem real." Avitoko plans to take its activities, ranging from health camps to art workshops, to jails outside Mumbai. Greeting cards are also a regular feature but sadly, there aren’t many takers yet for prison art, says Vibha. She’s determined to do her bit to gain these people acceptance.
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