Freedom struggle

Expressions

They may not have been permitted to visit an exhibition of their own paintings, but for more than 20 Tihar inmates, freedom had already found an expression when they were roped in by the Ramchander Nath Foundation (RNF) for a year-long project to create art assisted by some of the top names of Indian contemporary art. And, when some select paintings from the project went up on show as ‘Expressions’ at Tihar at Mati Ghar, IGNCA, last week in Delhi, their creativity generated as much interest as the works by artists who had interacted with them over the last one year.

“We have sold all the works by the inmates,” gushed Anubhav Nath, of RNF, adding that the proceeds of the sale would go to Tihar Welfare Fund. While he admits that the process of renowned artists working with the inmates, finally resulting in the impressive show of more than 50 odd works, was an eye opener to the “circumstances that converted most of these young lads into criminals,” Nath refuses to disclose the name of the Delhi artist who, impressed by the talent, has taken in a released inmate to work with him.

It is the work on display, however, that helps to reveal both the identity and the circumstances of the inmates. Giving a real glimpse inside the world of a jail, in this case Tihar Jail Number 5 which houses convicts in the age group of 18-21, each inmate’s work surprisingly displays a mature handling of colours and canvas. “While we have been holding classes for them every week in the last one year where Chaitali De from Delhi College of Art has been training them, all the participating artists have spent time at Tihar to guide them,” smiles Nath like an indulgent parent, “but we never interfered with what they wanted to portray.”

So there is a mix of several emotions in the works, some sober, some vibrant. While Iqbal’s portrait of a melancholic looking girl greets you at the entrance, helplessness is evident in the 20-year-old Suraj’s work where a younger girl sits alone scared of darkness inside her room. Vijay’s work titled ‘Timeless Wait’ showcases a human tree fitted with a clock on the trunk, in an obvious reference to his wait towards freedom while some others create still life and landscapes in brighter colours as well.
Another undertrial Pawan uses his fascination with Lord Krishna for a small portrait that is both meticulous in detail and powerful in imagery. Dipu, another inmate from Bihar, imparts his style of innovation in a one-eyed portrait of Mother Teresa while a traditional Indian woman has a lotus as her crown. There is also on show a poster collage which has both figurative elements portraying life inside the jail and poignant inscriptions like “I want to go out” and “Set me Free”. Similar sentiments find their echo in works that show birds flying out of a cage, flowers in full bloom and in, particular deities. Said Nath explaining the overwhelming presence of Gods and Goddesses in the inmates’ work: “Religious tolerance is extremely high in the prison, where you would expect it the least. I saw festivals like Navratras and Rozas being observed by all with equal fervour.”

Holding hands

The story of ‘Expressions’, however, cannot be complete without mentioning the large scale canvases, installations and photographs mounted by artists like Rameshwar Broota, Chintan Upadhyay, Gigi Scaria, Bose Krishnamachari, Baiju Parthan, George Martin, G R Iranna, Manjunath Kamath, Veer Munshi and several others…each having spent time with the Tihar inmates during the project. While some of them have chosen to portray a prison-specific message, like Chintan Upadhyaya does with his quirky toddlers with message Mera Baap Chor Hai inscribed on the arms in a series titled ‘Tapori Gang and Tapori Bhai’ or ‘Jail ki Roti’ by Shreyas Karle where a chef holding a rolling pin is actually a prisoner working in the jail kitchen.

Says Karle: “I chose to show the life within the jail in a humourous way because my interactions with the inmates totally changed my perception of the life within these walls. But there is no doubt that however well looked after they are, it is still a jail.”
One of the most evocative works in the exhibit belongs to the veteran Rameshwar Broota — a photographic print of heaps of rotis, seemingly kept organised on a large plate yet looking desolate in its existence.

Another dramatic work has been done as a collage of 108 small size self-portraits in various moods by Bose Krishnamachari while Prasad Raghavan’s two installations ‘Born Innocent’ and ‘Man Escaped’ facing each other on opposite walls are made up of iron rods and mirror to reflect who we really are.

Satire and humour also find their way into the artists’ works. Sanjeev Khandekar’s ‘Tihar Jail on a Wheat Grain’ (including motifs that read ‘Welcome to Tihar’) pokes fun at the transparency that our jails are not so famous for, while Shiv Verma’s astute wall mounted sculptural work in iron, stainless steel, aluminium and acrylic sheet titled ‘Gandhiji and his 3000 monkeys’ is a modern-day take on the mythology of Rama and his vanar sena.
G R Iranna attempts to ask a similar question about the choices one has. In his acrylic titled ‘Between Freedom And Freedom Fighters’, he shows a group of young men, almost like a football team, but each wearing a shirt that is marked with a date of some terrorist attack across the globe.

He says, “Every child is innocent and has a right to education that teaches him good morals and values, and sport is part of that education system. Sadly, these terrorists were imparted a wrong sort of education and got trapped in the notion that their act of violence was justified as they were freedom fighters.”

Ram Rahman uses the same metaphor of freedom fighters albeit in a different way. He juxtaposes images of Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh and Shri Aurobindo along aside unknown faces of Tihar inmates yet giving the latter the eyes of Indian freedom fighters. Perhaps, an indication of the fact that there is a thin line between each one’s concept of freedom and freedom struggle.

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