A malnourished elephant with scrawny limbs and eggs instead of feet, with a flat yellow backdrop and only a red shadow as other content on the canvas, is placed in the extreme corner, outside the first-floor gallery of Delhi’s Lalit Kala Akademi. Typically, elephants are associated with strength and power, but the well-known concomitance is a contrast to the pencil-legged elephant portrayed in this watercolour-on-canvas. With surrealism at the heart of it, the artwork is also a reminder of Salvador Dali’s The Elephants, which sits in Spain’s Dali Museum. Right next to the melancholic elephant is a bouquet of blooming tulips and wilting leaves connected to a ladder, as if inviting the spring — a metaphor for hope.
If one looks closely at the untitled works, the signature reveals that they have been created by painter, sculptor and installation artist Chintan Upadhyay during his time in the Thane Central Jail, Mumbai. These are placed alongside works created by other inmates across many jails as part of simultaneous art workshops being held in various jails in the country. Upadhyay’s works are on display in Delhi as part of the Tihar Kala Utsav, on till August 31.
He was arrested in 2015 after the bodies of his estranged wife, Hema Upadhyay, and her lawyer Harish Bhambani were discovered by the police. After being behind bars for over a year, he was supplied with colours and canvas in March, as he had stopped speaking to his fellow prisoners and psychologists were of the view that he was on the verge of depression.
Artist Veer Munshi, who has curated the exhibition and worked with the inmates in Delhi’s Tihar Central for the project, calls Upadhyay’s works “quite different” from his usual style. “There seems to be a change in perspective. There has to be. He has spent quite a while inside,” says Munshi.
The post-graduate in Arts from MS University, Baroda, Upadhyay is remembered for his trademark “baby heads”, a metaphor he used to express consumerism and technology. Munshi adds that he tried to negotiate with the in-charge of Thane Central Jail to get Upadhyay to Delhi for the exhibition. “But the rules do not allow that. Since Chintan is still under trial, he cannot be taken anywhere. Some other inmates, like Mahmood Farooqui for instance, already convicted, were allowed to perform outside the jail during the festival,” says Munshi, adding that he is impressed by Upadhyay’s works, one of which was quite large and could not be transported to Delhi.
Munshi also talks about the two iron installations created by Shambhu, a murder convict who makes furniture inside Tihar jail. Created with iron scrap, one of them is a wheel barrow putting out iron batons onto the ground, the movement in the installation being of paramount significance. The other has two tall and one small “pillars of hope”. “Shambhu is in Jail No 2, where inmates stay for longer periods of time as they are convicted of grave crimes. They are settled, sober and have realised the value of life. Art, for them, works as therapy,” says Munshi.
While there are many abstract works, paintings of Lord Krishna, depictions of the life in jail, and works showing respect for women dominate the exhibition. The workshop came into existence when Sudhir Yadav, Director-General, Tihar Jail, approached the Lalit Kala Akademi for the same. “The idea was the reformation of inmates and to help them have a career when they come out. As an artist, I’m very impressed,” said CS Krishna Shetty, Administrator, Lalit Kala Akademi. The Akademi has also established an exhibition space inside the Tihar premises to have regular exhibitions by noted artistes so that inmates can learn from them.