Drama behind bars

Hulugappa Kattimani with artistes

Theatre is a medium that does not serve just to entertain, but also educate. That theatre can also be used to spur social reform has been demonstrated by various theatre practitioners. Spearheading one such initiative that employs theatre to reform convicts is Hulugappa Kattimani, a theatre practitioner at Rangayana, Mysuru. His first brush with prison inmates came when the Rangayana team visited Ballari Central Prison in 1997. B V Karanth, who was the then director of Rangayana, often took his students to various places, urging them to keenly observe and derive inspiration from their surroundings. One such visit took them to Ballari Prison when Kattimani was struck by the idea of introducing theatre to the convicts. Karanth, who had already taught convicts music in the prisons of Madhya Pradesh, supported him.

Centres of reformation 

Kattimani approached Gopal Hosur, the then Superintendent of Police, who agreed to help Kattimani despite his initial misgivings. Gopal Hosur saw merit in Kattimani’s idea that prisons should turn into centres of reformation. Since its modest beginnings in 1997, Kattimani’s brainchild has seen immense success. In 2000, he formally founded Sankalpa Kala Sangha to bring together like-minded individuals who believed in the cause. Along with Kattimani, his wife Pramila Bengre, also an artiste at Rangayana, Gopal Hosur, Krishnamurthy Hanur, Saggere Radhakrishna, Subbu Holeyar, Raghavendra, Kiran and others are part of Sankalpa. 

Though Kattimani has been working with convicts for 21 years, the path to success was strewn with obstacles. Convincing the officials of the Prison Department to grant him permission to work with the inmates was only the first of many. “I encountered a lot of resistance from the inmates themselves. The prisoners were uninterested and could not conceive what could come out of acting in a play. The prison staff were also wary of our intentions. It took them a while to extend cooperation, but we have received a lot of appreciation from the government and the Prison Department,” reminisces Kattimani. The prisoners had to be won over by involving them in other activities like yoga, drawing, painting and making clay sculptures. Slowly, they were initiated into theatre through reading of plays and detailed discussions.

When Kattimani conceived the idea of directing a play for the women inmates, he had to face a lot of resistance. The officials did not give him permission to have male and female prisoners rehearse together. The women themselves were unused to talking loudly or raising their voices. Prison had broken the spirit of most of them. It was only after Pramila joined Kattimani in his visits to the prison that the women slowly began to come out of their shells. In 2003, Sankalpa put up a performance of Bhisham Sahni’s Madhavi. Recounting the unique experience, Kattimani says, “We finally were able to produce a show with male and female prisoners who had to rehearse in their separate barracks. Despite these hurdles, the play was well-received and went on to be a life-changing experience for a few inmates.”

Sankalpa’s theatre initiative is not just limited to producing a play with convicts in it. Instead, it seeks to initiate a process of introspection and change among them. Theatre is the most efficient medium to do that as it can open up an internal dialogue in every actor, Kattimani believes. How does he choose plays for his productions, then? “We want them to relate to and understand the themes of the plays. Only then can we expect them to be interested in acting. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are apt in this respect because they portray dilemmas that have the capacity to touch the core of a person,” says Kattimani. He ensures that the plays are Indianised so that the prisoners can easily relate to them. So, Julius Caesar becomes Dundi Shesha Nayaka, Antony becomes Andani, River Tiber Tapati, and Rome Maggipattana. 

The entire process of putting up a play lasts for months. Enthusiasts from different prisons in the State take part in the plays. They get transferred to one prison for the duration of the rehearsals. In 21 years, as many as 18 plays have been performed by the convicts. These include Maranayaka, King Lear, Madhavi, Kasturba, Huli Neralu, Jothegiruvanu Chandira, Bhagavadajjukeeya.

Kattimani usually takes six months to produce four plays. That period is enough to initiate a sea change in the members of the cast. Kattimani recounts the example of Ramesh, a former convict who played the roles of Gandhi and Basavanna. Quick to anger and fighting, Ramesh was counselled by Kattimani as to the errors of his ways and his inability to imbibe values from the lives of the characters he was playing. Taking this to heart, Ramesh began to read vachanas in his free time and reflect upon his behaviour. He later changed to such an extent that he went on to guide and mentor other convicts.

Their involvement in theatre has brought a lot of respect for convicts who are still inmates and also to those who have been released. Some of the convicts attest to this fact. Anburaj is a former convict who spent 20 years in prison. Today, the reformed convict operates an oil mill and is an integral part of Sankalpa. Convicted while he was still a teenager, Anburaj dreamt of escaping from jail. However, Sankalpa offered him a fresh lease of life. He went on to study and get a journalism degree. “Theatre did not just teach me how to act. It has changed my perspective towards life. As an actor, I have understood how much trust I place on a co-actor. The same level of trust is required to navigate in the real world,” he says. A native of Tamil Nadu, Anburaj dreams of starting a similar initiative in the prisons of his home state and has sent an appeal to the Tamil Nadu government in this regard. 

Srinivasa Rao, another convict, says that acting has given him relief from the frustration and stress that comes from serving a prison sentence. Rao, who plays the role of a policeman in Jayant Kaikini’s Jothegiruvanu Chandira, says that he feels bad playing the role because his character ends up disrupting the happiness of a family in the play. Theatre has taught him patience and empathy, he says. 

Speaking after a recent performance of Jothegiruvanu Chandira, Prashant, a convict, agreed with Srinivasa Rao and Anburaj. “I have learnt how to lead life with love and patience through theatre. Without this opportunity, many convicts would have fallen prey to mental illnesses,” he says. 

Monumental change

That theatre has brought in a monumental change in the lives of the convicts is evident, say Kattimani and Bengre. “We may have set out to reform the convicts. But, the biggest change has been in us and the prison officials. The society also has a lot to learn from this,” they acknowledge. Many convicts are looked up to in the prisons. Others have been released early taking into account their good behaviour and involvement in theatre. Bagali Mahesh, who was a part of Sankalpa’s plays, had no trouble finding a bride for himself, which would have been unthinkable under normal circumstances. 

Convicts are considered hardened criminals and are alienated from society. By placing them in front of the audience, Sankalpa has shown the world that they are ordinary human beings who made mistakes and deserve a second chance. It has helped them gain respectability and given them an opportunity to build new and fruitful lives. 

Kattimani has many a plan for Sankalpa. The most ambitious one is organising a six-month seasonal repertory for released convicts. “The man who has a conscience suffers whilst acknowledging his sin. That is his punishment,” stated Fyodor Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment. Through theatre, Sankalpa has been attempting to rouse the dormant conscience of convicts, in the hope of reforming them. Sankalpa can be reached at sankalpamysore6@gmail.com.

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