IN November 2009, when art enthusiast Kavita Shivdasani received a series of charcoal paintings by Lalitha Ramanrao Gonugunta, then a convict at the Nagpur Central Jail, they left a lasting impression “Her paintings told stories that needed to be heard,” says Shivdasani. She was soon at the Nagpur Central Jail with drawing boards and canvases, beginning a journey for over a dozen prisoners who would turn into artists. Their works now adorn the walls of living rooms, corporate houses and even the office of the Inspector General of Prisons inside Byculla jail in south Mumbai.
Mumbai-based Shivdasani has been working closely with jail inmates, showcasing their works through exhibitions and coffee-table books. “In 2006, I had taken my students (she runs a ‘Know Your Environment’ class) for a field trip to Arthur Road Jail for a research on Mumbai in Portuguese India. I came across charcoal works by a convict Baby John Parkal. There I got to know of other prison artists, including Lalitha. I sought permission from the Prison Department office to exhibit their art work,” says Shivdasani. Since then she has organised over five exhibitions of jail inmates. As she talks to us, her team bubblewraps each painting, placing them in neatly tagged cardboard boxes, identifying the jail from which they have arrived. These paintings will be on display at Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery, Mumbai, from February 27 to March 5, as part of the exhibition “Colour – Leap of Faith”.
It has not been easy organising exhibitions and publishing coffee-table books. “Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of exhibiting artwork by inmates who are allegedly guilty of an offence. There is a moral conflict of whether it is right to extend a platform to a prisoner who might have wronged somebody. Then I met Sunaina Kejriwal, the gallery Director, and now we hold the exhibitions at the Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery,” says Shivdasani.
In 2013, an exhibition titled “Surrealist” saw many dark and grim paintings, with inmates letting themselves free and sketching their deepest thoughts. “Most of these paintings were on topics such as life in prison, female infanticide, faith, and destiny. I was overwhelmed by their imagination. We chose 42 of these paintings and my students, between the age group of 9 to 16 years, wrote stories or poems on them. This has been compiled as a coffee-table book, Surrealist,” says Shivdasani.
In the book, alongside Parkal’s painting of a bat hung upside down, with snakes and vultures staring him down, is his note: “I never wanted to be an artist by profession. In the past few years I have found art to be my best companion, it has become my personal diary.” A story by art student Siddhant Mehta accompanies the image, where a “secret keeper” is brutally killed by evil figures.
Additional Director General of Police, Prisons, Bhushan Kumar Upadhyaya says art provides a deviation for the inmates. “Not only does it bring out their creativity, but the act of painting is a way of letting out their stress,” he says.
When the exhibition opens next month, some of them will be at the gallery so that patrons can get sketches done. It could give them an alternative identity of being artists, some of whom hope to take that on, after their term is over.