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To prison and back,with a theatre fest in between

Over four days this March,one of the centres for theatre in Bangalore,the Ravindra Kalakshetra,was witness to a unique festival

Written by Johnson T A | Bangalore |
April 24, 2012 3:53:49 am

Over four days this March,one of the centres for theatre in Bangalore,the Ravindra Kalakshetra,was witness to a unique festival. Every evening, the actors in the featured plays were brought in police vans and,after staging their productions — including Anton Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Shakespeare’s King Lear — taken back to a central prison located outside the city.

The Karnataka prison theatre group Sankalpa,of which they are a part,has been doing this for 13 years,overcoming seemingly treacherous logistics of lodging,security,transport,funds and the lack of public support. The Bangalore part done,currently the 100-plus group is on a tour staging four-day festivals in different cities with four plays. Earlier they have participated in theatre festivals in neighbouring states.

In 13 years,there hasn’t been a single instance of a prisoner staging an escape during such festivals. Though,as founder of Sankalpa Hulugappa Kattimani says,it’s still hard trying to get people to see merit in the scheme that is aimed at reforming the prisoners.

Sankalpa kicked off from Bangalore prison,followed by Mysore. Now it has inmates from Belgaum and Dharwad jails too — taking the theatre group’s reach to four of the eight major prisons in Karnataka. In a first,Sankalpa has sought government support (of Rs 50 lakh) to scale up the programme to cover all the prisons in the state.

“Until now,there hasn’t been a single incident where a prisoner has escaped. The moment someone runs away,that moment my project will come to a close,” says Kattimani,the brain behind the initiative. He is himself a professional actor and director with the renowned Rangayana theatre group from Mysore.

Kattimani conceived the project in 1997 during a visit to a prison in Bellary. Initially the plays were staged within the jails,but over the last 10 years,the theatre group has taken their productions to major venues.

He chooses plays with strong underlying themes of guilt,such as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,Macbeth or King Lear or biographical plays centering on strong,moral characters like Gandhi or Basavanna.

“We also try to have prison prologues and epilogues to the plays we produce — like showing day-to-day activities in which prisoners are involved and then getting a sutradhar type of character to shift the scene to the actual play and back,” says Kattimani.

During the typically 45-day preparations for a production and during the rehearsals,all the prisoners in the theatre troupe are locked separately from the other inmates.One of those in the troupe is murder convict S V Ramesh,43,who is into the 13th year of his life term in the Bangalore central prison. He has been the star of many of the plays staged by Sankalpa. “If I were to run away,who will play my character? Being a part of the troupe has given us a sense of responsibility and a place in society. If I run away,I would be the loser,” says Ramesh.

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