54 Prisoners Dance Their Way Out the Presidency Jail

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By Soma Mitra, Womens Feature Service

All prisons in West Bengal were converted into correctional homes in the year 2000. It was a decision of the state government as part of the global celebrations of the Millennium year. After a decade, there is perhaps only one prison in the state that can claim to have successfully made the transition, Presidency Jail in Kolkata.

It all started in 2007 when the Odissi danseuse, Alokananda Roy, visited Presidency Jail as part of a dance performance in the female ward to commemorate International Women’s Day. What she saw of the inmates and their lives behind bars brought her tears

“Despite the fact that their cells were clean and that they were being provided regular meals, the mental health of most of the inmates was clearly in poor shape. On that very day I decided that I was going to do something for them,” Roy recalled.

The opportunity to change their lives for the better presented itself very soon. The Inspector General of Prisons in the state approached Roy with a proposal. The proposal is to conduct a dance workshop for boarders of the Presidency Correctional Home. While Roy was eager to take up the assignment, the move met with stiff resistance from the inmates especially from the male undertrials.

For Roy such reactions were something of a setback. She decided to go ahead with her plan anyway. She requested for a one-hour interaction with the jail inmates and promised them that it would not be a dance session but karate accompanied with music.

“They were happy with this arrangement and were curious to see how karate could be learnt with music. I actually started with Kalaripayattu which is an Indian martial art from the southern state of Kerala),” revealed Roy.

During the initial days Roy used to spend about six to seven hours a day with some complaints. Most complaints came from jailers for serious charges like murder and rape.

The authorities at the correctional facility bought huge drums and beautiful white costumes for all the 54 inmates who were with Roy.

The learning process had a logic of its own. According to Roy the dance activity became a passion. The students did not even realize that they have mastered a dance presenation.

“Then one day after class I called them for a meeting and said that I was planning a stage show with them. They were dumbstruck,” smiles Roy.

The dedicated instructor already had a dance drama planned for her students. The dance drama was entitled “Balmiki Pratibha” by Rabindranath Tagore. When she explained the script to them, they were overwhelmed by the story.

The group rehearsed for nearly two months. It comprised not just the prisoners but even the workers in the Presidency Correctional Home.

“At first we felt uneasy performing with them. But Alokananda insisted. Later on it was completely different. We not only rehearsed together but we ate together, chatted together. We saw them as people. It was like my own brother is in jail,” says Shibu Majumdar, the head warden.

Roy had planned to stage the show at Rabindra Sadan, one of Kolkata’s most prestigious theatres. But the police denied permission for dreaded criminals to leave the correctional facility.

“It was then that my actual fight started. I told them that I was taking a guarantee for them and assured them that not one of them would run away. It took weeks to get permission to take them out of the prison for three hours,” recalled Roy.

On the big day in May last year, the artists were taken to the venue in four prison vans with a huge fleet of armed police cars following them.

“It was like the Prime Minister of India’s convoy,” said Akara.

The performance lasted for two hours and a full house watched with rapt attention as the inmates executed perfect classical Odissi dance moves.

After the performance, the group only took 15 minutes to wrap up and return to the prison van. They did not even wait to take their make up off.

“On the way we were just crying. We were just so happy,” says Piyush Goswami, who has been in the Presidency Jail for the last five years.

After the event all 54 performers were given parole for five days to go home to visit their families. Though some time has passed since their debut on stage the group is back together and has begun to rehearse regularly for their new production, “Beyond Boundaries”.

Using dance and music, two things she knows best, Roy had set out to give fresh meaning to the lives of select Presidency inmates. She was also hoping that the example of these undertrials finding a place under the spotlight would be inspired more change and fresh reform – the very purpose of a correctional facility.

Today, Roy has proved through her commitment that iron bars cannot stop personal growth.