Behind the curtain

When Anburaj was arrested and lodged in the Mysore prison, the future seemed bleak. His brother and he, associates of the dreaded sandalwood smuggler, Veerappan, had decided to surrender to the Salem police and mend their ways. In return, they were to be given amnesty and freedom to lead reformed lives. But that was not to be.

Anburaj remained in jail between1998 and 2016. While imprisoned, Anburaj got married, completed a graduation in History via distance education and earned a certificate in a course on Panchayati Raj.

How was this possible? Anburaj credits this to theatre. “I wouldn’t have been able to deal with my life if I didn’t have theatre to provide me the insight and solace,” Anburaj says, his voice choking with emotion.”

It was Sankalpa, a theatre group founded by Hulugappa Kattimani and his wife Pramila Bengre, that filled Anburaj with positivity. “I am happy that I came in contact with Kattimani’s Sankalpa in 2000, and it’s a bond that will continue for life,” he says. 

Anburaj is not alone. Over the years theatre has been used as an effective means to turn around the lives of prison inmates across the country. Anburaj, who was released from prison in 2016, has begun a new chapter in his life alongside another ex-prisoner and former member of the Sankalpa team. Today, the duo lead a meaningful existence in Andhiyur, Tamil Nadu, raising two children and running an organic shop to support themselves. They have chosen to dedicate their lives to empowering marginalised and tribal communities.

The Global Context of Prison Theatre

Prison theatre has roots in the Greek and Roman civilisations, where it was employed as a means of moral and social education for prisoners. In modern times, prison theatre initiatives have been implemented globally, with notable programmes in countries like the US, UK, and Brazil. Theatre plays a vital role in rehabilitation by offering inmates a creative outlet for self-expression, a platform to develop valuable life skills, and a space to build empathy and understanding for others. 

Several prison theatre programmes worldwide have gained recognition for their transformative impact on inmates and society. Examples include The Actors’ Gang Prison Project in the US, founded by actor Tim Robbins, which uses theatre workshops to help inmates develop emotional intelligence, improve communication skills, and build self-esteem. In the UK, Clean Break is a women’s theatre company that works with female prisoners and ex-offenders, offering education, training, and support to help them reintegrate into society and reduce recidivism. The Sao Paulo Prison Theatre Project in Brazil is a programme that uses theatre to empower inmates, promote social reintegration, and raise awareness about the prison system and its challenges.

Emergence and Evolution of Prison Theatre in India

The concept of prison theatre in India can be traced back to the 1980s when R. Krishnakumar, a theatre enthusiast and police officer, introduced it in prisons in Kerala. Gradually, it spread to other states such as Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. The NSD, as India’s foremost institution for theatre education, has played a crucial role in promoting and expanding prison theatre initiatives. By collaborating with state governments and prison authorities, the NSD has been able to train inmates in acting, direction, set design, and other theatrical aspects; develop tailored curricula and workshops addressing the specific needs of prisoners; and facilitate the production and performance of plays within prisons, as well as public performances outside prison walls.

Tamil Nadu has emerged as a leader in the field of prison theatre, and its initiatives have gained national and international attention for their transformative impact on inmates’ lives. Some notable examples include Puzhal Central Prison in Chennai, where inmates have staged plays addressing various social issues, such as drug abuse and its impact on society, Trichy Central Prison which has produced several plays exploring themes such as redemption and the search for meaning in life. These productions have garnered widespread acclaim and demonstrated the power of theatre in transforming lives. In Tihar Jail, Delhi, inmates have performed plays on gender equality and human rights. In Yerwada Central Jail, Pune, theatre workshops have helped inmates build self-confidence, improve communication skills, and gain a sense of achievement.

A Successful Experiment

In the late 1990s, Gopal Hosur, a Superintendent of Police in Karnataka, and theatre person Hulugappa Kattimani started discussing the seed of an idea and together, brought theatre to the prison in a big way.

Kattimani had been a student of B.V. Karanth, the doyen of Indian theatre, who also served as director of National School of Drama. Karanth, who had served as an undertrial in Bhopal after he had been accused of being complicit in an attack on his student and colleague, Vibha Mishra, documented how the oppressive loneliness of imprisonment can break a person completely from within. 

Vibha Mishra’s testimony saved him from sentence, but while in jail, Karanth decided to fight his depression with the one strength he could rely on - theatre. He directed plays with prison inmates and staged a stunning show that left the jail authorities dumbfounded. It was not just the play, but a process of complete reform and positivity that they had seen in those engaged with Karanth that left everybody thinking.

When Karanth set up Rangayana, a government-funded theatre institute in Mysore in 1987, Kattimani was among the 40-50 students he chose to study theatre. Kattimani and his wife, Pramila Bengre, have been working with prison inmates through their organisation Sankalpa since 1997. The organisation has staged over 150 Kannada plays directed by Kattimani and other creative, like-minded people. 

Kattimani, now in his mid-50s, recalls, “When I approached Gopal Hosur, for permission, I didn’t think it would be easy to meet a bureaucrat and convince him that I wanted to work with prisoners, using theatre as a tool. But he surprised me: he welcomed the idea with open arms. He was all for it.”

The next step was a bigger challenge: winning the confidence of the convicts. “They came in different shapes and sizes, and with varied backstories too,” Kattimani says. “Naturally enough, they were bitter, angry and didn’t want anyone to peep into their inner worlds.”

Hosur, who retired as Head of Intelligence and is now in his mid-60s, feels, as he did then decades ago, that theatre has the potential to help prisoners overcome their grief and aggression.“When a person lands in jail, the sense of permanency of the act that brought him here sets in completely and absolutely,” he says with unusual insight. “Aggression is another by-product. The biggest question for a person who must spend much of his life in jail is, how to live inside the four walls daily.”

“This was an experiment,” recalls Kattimani. “Even if it failed, it would have left some lessons in its wake.”

The challenge was not just about making actors out of inmates, but also about bringing them together, helping them build a rapport, and opening their hearts and minds to each other. “Once inside a jail, even the most jovial person turns guarded,” says Hosur. “The challenge for the director was to break down that barrier.”

The first play Kalanema (written by Manjunath Belakere of Rangayana) was performed before a full house within the premises of Bellary jail. The then Chief Minister, J.H. Patel, watched the play at the invitation of Minister, M.P. Prakash, also a writer and performer. The performance was astounding and worth every minute for everyone involved. The jail staffers, too, were more than pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

Eventually, women convicts were roped in too, and shows were organised outside the jail. “As risky as it may sound, people had to see the talent that lies trapped within the high walls of the jail, and convicts had to see that the society accepts them back into its fold through a social mode,” says Hosur. “The applause still makes them heady.”

A few years ago, the audience at the upmarket Rangashankara in Bangalore witnessed Jategiruvanu Chandira and  Maara Nayka (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth). Far from being an event dominated by patrons, the convicts had gifted the audience a few moments of fine theatre from their life.

When a show was organised in Shravana Belagola, the site of the monolithic Gomateshwara atop a hill, the convicts expressed their desire to go close to the statue as the Mahamastakabhisheka was going on as they would never get an opportunity easily to watch this ritual.

“I took them,” says Kattimani, “and to be honest, my heart was pounding. The escorts were as tired as the prisoners. And there were all chances of a successful escape attempt as the hill lies open to such adventures.”None of that happened. When they came back down, the media asked one of them: “The opportunity was right there… didn’t you feel like escaping?” The man said: “What are you saying? If I run away, who will play my role this evening?”

The transformative power of theatre in the lives of these inmates is a testament to the vision and dedication of Kattimani and those like him. By offering a creative outlet and a means of self-expression, they have given these prisoners a renewed sense of hope, purpose, and connection to the outside world.

In addition to these efforts, Anburaj founded Bright Prison Theatre in Tamil Nadu, an initiative to facilitate prison reform through the power of theatre. Currently seeking volunteers to join the cause, I, too, had the opportunity to lend my support to this noble endeavour, along with acclaimed cinema director Anis.

The Impact and Benefits of Prison Theatre

The use of theatre within the prison system has the potential to transform lives, break down barriers, and foster empathy and understanding. It helps inmates learn teamwork, leadership, problem-solving, and conflict-resolution skills, which can be instrumental in their reintegration into society.

By immersing themselves in the emotions and experiences of others, inmates can create a more profound understanding of the human condition, leading to increased empathy and self-awareness.

Public performances enable the wider community to recognise the potential for change and growth within prisoners, thus challenging prevailing stereotypes and reducing stigma. By showcasing their talents and creativity, inmates can demonstrate that they are more than their past mistakes and have the potential to contribute positively to society.

Prison theatre initiatives help create stronger and more cohesive prison communities as inmates collaborate and support one another in the creative process. Additionally, the themes and messages explored in prison theatre productions can raise awareness about important social issues and inspire positive change within and beyond prison wall. 

Overcoming challenges in Prison Theatre

Maintaining a safe and supportive environment for inmates and facili­tators is essential to the success of prison theatre programmes. This may involve implementing clear guidelines, providing training for facilitators, and addressing any concerns or issues that may arise during the course of the program.

Convincing prison authorities and the wider community of the benefits of prison theatre may require persistent advocacy and evidence-based demonstrations of its positive impact. 

Securing adequate funding and resources for prison theatre initiatives is crucial to sustain and expand these programmes. 

Advocacy efforts and strategic partnerships can help generate the necessary resources and support.

Institutions like the National School of Drama have played a crucial role in promoting and expanding these initiatives in India, with states like Tamil Nadu leading the way. By embracing the potential of prison theatre, India can offer hope and inspiration for a brighter future for inmates and their communities, ultimately contributing to a more just and compassionate society.

Arunbalaji Selvaraj

(The author works for tribal empowerment and serves across the spectrum in the domain of free education for marginalised communities. He is also a Technical Delivery Manager at Dell-EMC , Bangalore)