In his dance drama Balmiki Pratibha,Rabindranath Tagore described the spiritual transformation of the dacoit Ratnakar into the saint Valmiki. Earlier this week in the Gurudevs own abode of peace,a 29-year-old convicted murderer completed a similar,personal journey.
Nigel Akara aka Vicky,part of a theatre troupe consisting entirely of prisoners at Kolkatas Presidency Correctional Home,drew a standing ovation for his part as the robber-saint of Balmiki Pratibha on the eve of the celebrated Basanta Utsav in Santiniketan.
It feels almost unreal to perform this dance drama on Tagores land, says Vicky in impeccable English just before going on stage. There can be no better achievement for me than performing here. I had never read Tagores drama,but when I was chosen to play the role of Valmiki I read it in Bengali and asked another friend to explain the meanings of the verses I was unable to comprehend.
Vicky,whose parents came from Kerala to settle in Kolkata many years ago,is serving a life term in prison for the abduction and murder of a businessman in 1999. He was a student of the prestigious St Xaviers College in the city when he was arrested.
Vicky isnt keen on discussing the past beyond a few philosophical sentences. We make mistakes and I am paying for the mistakes of my life, he says. Not everyone is a culprit,or guilty of what they are accused of… but sometimes,they are, he says cryptically.
Playing Valmiki wasnt too difficult,Vicky says. He is only playing himself on stage.
It is unimaginable,the degree of transformation that Vicky has undergone as a person, says BD Sharma,Inspector General of Prisons,West Bengal. Today,he is far more sober,and there is absolutely no fear in travelling with him and the other prisoners to different places to stage these productions. We trust him completely.
Training prisoners to perform Tagores dance dramas is part of a project begun two years ago by the jail department of the Bengal government with a view to reforming them. The role of Valmiki was first essayed by Tagore himself at a show at the poets ancestral home in Jorasanko in 1881. He played this
role several times later at various performances across India.
As a child,Vicky would have to be dragged to church every Sunday. Today,he spends most of his time thinking about God. I feel a change,a change from what I was at one time. Today I feel far more confident. But most importantly I feel happy. There is happiness within me. I have never had any kind of exposure to culture and the creative arts,and this has been a big revelation for me, he says.
Dancer Alokananda Roy,who has been holding dance therapy lessons for the prisoners,recalls the time she selected Vicky for the role.
When I was explaning the story of Balmiki Pratibha to Vicky I was trying to be a little diplomatic but he stopped me in between the play-reading session and said,Ma,you dont have to be so diplomatic with me. You are reading out my lifes story and you dont have to be shy of telling me that. I had tears in my eyes because I could see that he truly felt like I was his mother, Roy says.
Prison authorities say Vicky is now de facto instructor for the 39 other male prisoners who are a part of the show. He holds discussion sessions in his cell before and after performances,inspires them every time they are in need of some pep talk,helps them with their dance movements and even massages the feet of the actors when they feel tired.
And he is not at all bitter about life on the contrary,his experiences,he feels,have made him a better individual than he was earlier.