Prisoners' hopes soar with beats of Chenda in Kerala

Prisoners' hopes soar with beats of Chenda in Kerala

When acclaimed percussion artist Prakashan Pazhambalakode approached the Kerala Prisons Department with a proposal to impart basic training to prison inmates in chenda – a percussion instrument – the idea was not to solely provide a welcome distraction for the prisoners.

The proposal was pegged to a cyclle model of training; trained inmates would take classes for new batches before they move out of the prison. After release, they could build on their basic skills by taking advanced training and even become professionals in their trade. The idea was also to facilitate a career and life outside of the prison.

Since the training commenced for a batch of inmates at the Poojappura Central Prison in Thiruvananthapuram in July 2013, the training modules have been replicated in the state’s two other central prisons in Kannur and Viyyur in Thrissur.

Prakashan has, so far, trained 34 prison inmates and two prison officials as part of the initiative in chembada melam, a basic chenda ensemble. The artist

insists that this is all part of an “attempt” at change and it needs greater involvement from the state government for it to attain results. Prison officials maintain that while the initiative takes forward the model of rehabilitation reforms in the state’s prisons, financial assistance from the government could be critical in developing it as a sustainable project.
“People who have taken the classes said they were looking at the world in a new way; that was the intention of the initiative. The inmates continue to show great interest in the training but it is not commercially viable for independent artists like me to take it forward without a financial commitment from the government,” says Prakashan.

The percussion artiste took 16-day classes in the three prisons for undertrials and convicts, some of them sentenced to life imprisonment. Prakashan also played along with the trained inmates at their arangetrams.

The prisoners’ initial curiosity and reluctance had later given way to a genuine interest in the classes. Prakashan remembers how one of the inmates in Poojappura requested a postponement of his release to be part of the arangetram of 11 prisoners and two prison officials during the Onam season.

At the Viyyur Central Prison, 14 inmates staged Jail Pooram – a chenda ensemble of prisoners – on the eve of the famed Thrissur Pooram. About 20 professional chenda players joined them during the arangetram. Among the trained inmates was Jimmy Solano from Ecuador, held for being in possession of snake venom; Solano was later acquitted. 

In Kannur, 11 inmates completed the training and performed during the Navaratri season last year. “I’ve seen some potential and over a period of time, we should be able to package this programme as something that generates possibilities of a career for these prisoners after they go out and face the world,” says Prakashan. The artiste, however, says that the initiative had left him poorer by close to Rs 80,000; he was in charge of arranging the chendas and supporting players.

The prisons don’t have the infrastructure to support similar music training initiatives and one-off projects helmed by individual artists have a limited impact, according to officials in the Prisons Department.

Prison authorities at Viyyur are set to launch new, state-funded vocational courses in catering, make-up and other careers in April but there is not much excitement over possibilities of extended chenda training at the prison. “At present, there’s no plan to upgrade the chenda training here. We’ll need the infrastructure, instruments and related equipment to take such music projects forward and for that, there has to be a sustainable plan that comes with government funding,” says Santhosh T G, jail welfare officer at Viyyur.

Santhosh raises apprehensions about effectiveness of the cyclic training model – only five of the trained inmates are left in Viyyur; some of them are expected to move to an open jail – but maintains that similar initiatives bring a sense of purpose and direction to prisoners as they stare at a future of uncertainty. The three central prisons in the state together house close to 2,700 prisoners.

The state Prisons Department is lining up plans for similar projects and is looking at collaboration with experts and renowned artists. The department runs successful jail reform projects, including chappati-making units.

George Chacko, jail welfare officer, Poojappura Central Prison, says plans are on to have ace magician Gopinath Muthukad teach basic magic skills to prisoners. “We also plan to take up programmes pegged to music therapy in the prison from April. These progra­mmes are essentially conceived as therapy for the inmates,” says Chacko, a former regional training coordinator at the National Institute of Mental Health And Neuro Sciences (Nimhans), Bangalore.

The chenda training project could be in for an update. The Prisons Department is contemplating roping in more artists to the project. The first professional artiste to emerge out of the progra­mme could be its real ambassador; a sign of hope that could increase participation and ensure greater state support.

“A mere month-long course in chenda basics is not going to be a life-changer for these prisoners who have faced life at its worst,” reasons a prison official. Prakashan counters the argument by saying that the authorities often miss the big picture. “The awareness programmes should start with them,” he says.


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