It was in 2010 that Ajay Mandavi went to the Kanker district jail—not as a prisoner but as an educator— tasked with a mission of teaching the inmates the craft of wood calligraphy.
Fast forward nine years, Mandavi has a lot to reflect on. Having spent most of his lifetime in Chhattisgarh’s North Bastar district of Kanker, Mandavi laments how an underdeveloped but peaceful region ended up becoming the nerve centre of Naxal-Maoist militancy in India.
“Many lives have been wrecked due to Maoism,” the 52-year-old woefully says, sitting in front of a mild bonfire on a breezy November evening. “In the past, locals never hesitated to travel in and around Bastar; there used to be no fear. But that mindset has changed now.”
Though he has been making wood sculptures since childhood, little did he know that his fascination towards art would set him on a trailblazing path. His ‘arts and crafts’ class at the Kanker district jail has enabled around 350 inmates—mostly accused of having Maoists links—with skills to earn a livelihood in their ‘life after prison’.
In 2010, the then district collector had deputed Mandavi, a taxation official with the state government, in the jail. “I had apprehensions about whether anyone would be able to learn the craft. I had then told the collector that I would call it a success if even one of them learns it. But to my surprise, everyone turned out to be quick learners,” he says, raising his eyebrows.
A rare enabler from the strife-torn land, Mandavi maintains rather an appealing calm exterior. Perhaps, that’s why they stay in touch with him even after their release. “I never make them rewind their past. Instead, I engage them in activities where they can move forward,” he says.
Mayaram Dugga, arrested in 2009 on charges of Naxal links, was among the first batch who learnt the nitty-gritty of wood calligraphy under the guidance of Mandavi. Today, he is proficient in making wooden artefacts such as nameplates, key rings among others. “I used to aimlessly wander around with friends, having no proper work. Ever since I started learning from Mandavi sir, I earn enough to take care of my family,” he adds.
Ramesh Potai had served three years in prison before taking up this profession. His face beams when he says, “today people call me an artist.”
Art, Mandavi thinks, can have a therapeutic impact on anyone’s lives. After a long pause, he sheds light on the torture that one of his students had to face to drive home his point. “His spinal cord was injured during an interrogation due to which he used to get paralytic spasms every month. He used to struggle to walk then. Today he is able to walk properly,” Mandavi says, crediting a blend of art and yoga for his recovery.
In early 2016, Mandavi formed a self-help group called Shanta Arts after landing a project under the district administration to make nameplates and boards for gram panchayat members of around 50 panchayats. “This was an excellent livelihood opportunity for 40-odd former outlaws who put in their hard work to make those pieces. But the entire project came a cropper after some greedy officers asked for a hefty bribe and misguided some who then refused to pay us for our work,” he says.
The road to redemption, especially for inmates, is long and fraught with hurdles. And Mandavi believes that the society makes it harder for them to lead a normal life. “It’s very unfortunate that a person is judged by his/her past. Instead of helping them return to the mainstream, the society makes it so tough for them that it pushes them back to the world of crimes,” he says.
The financial setback or in his own words “mental setback”, however, failed to deter the Gond artist from working towards his cause. Two years later, a group of prisoners under the guidance of Mandavi set a world record for creating ‘largest wood crafted sentence’ on Vande Mataram. For their work, the Kanker jail achieved the Golden Book of World Records.
“Notwithstanding the accolades, it failed to make much impact in generating enough employment opportunities,” Mandavi points out. “If each schools and government offices show interests for such artworks, it can create more livelihood for those who have been released from jail.”
Mohan Mandavi, the Member of Parliament from Kanker, has words of praise for his constituency’s popular carver. “Ajay Mandavi’s instrumental role in helping the inmates earn a means of livelihood is worthy of all the plaudits. It’s very heartening that because of his efforts, inmates can look forward to having a better life after their release,” Mohan says.
A proud Gond, Mandavi also has a suggestion for the government—promote sports in Naxal-affected areas. For he believes, it can be an antidote to the issue. “If their natural potential can be directed towards positive things, it will reap rich dividends,” he says.
Looking back, there is a sense of gratification that Mandavi feels. “Not a single inmate after their release from prison went back to the jail. No reports of their arrests or involvement in any crime were reported again,” Mandavi says, a mellow pride on his face.
“Once a student came rushing towards me to inform that he bought a second-hand colour TV. It was a big achievement for him, so was it for me,” says Mandavi with a humbling smile.