Tihar’s artists paint themselves a new dream

Until sevenmonths ago, art was just a hobby for prisoners in south Asia’s largest prison, Tihar. Today, it is enriching prisoners. Literally.

Ramesh Singh, 25, an inmate of jail number 4 has earned Rs 1.5 lakh in the last four months and his colleague, Anwar Omeis, 26, has made ₹60 thousand during the same time — a significant amount considering prisoners are paid a daily wage of ₹171 for skilled work and ₹107 for unskilled labour.

Mohmmad Ayub, who is out on bail now, had reportedly made ₹1.6 lakh, said jail officials.

All of them are associated with the Tihar School of Art, an institution set up in Jail Number 4 in 2016, to encourage prisoners take up art both as a means of reformation and rehabilitation. Earlier, the works by the prisoners used to be donated to government offices and given as present to visiting dignitaries. Most other paintings were hung and appreciated only within the prison walls.

However, with the prison administration deciding to put up the creations on sale and giving 50% of the amount to the inmate-artist, art has become the most sought after crafts in the prison. Tihar Jail runs stores that sell a wide variety of items such as confectionary, furniture, perfumes, jute items and oil manufactured at various units set up inside the prison complex.

As the prison opened its doors to art connoisseurs, works by the jail inmates have found takers in different government agencies, exhibitions and even a union minister’s office. Recently, the ESI hospital in west Delhi bought paintings worth over Rs 2 lakh to display them across the hospital building. Paintings displayed at an exhibition at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts sold for over a lakh rupees and a Union minister, the name of whom the jail officials refused to disclose, placed an order for a painting for the ministry building.

Ajay Kashyap, director general, Tihar Jail, said, “This is a way to rehabilitate prisoners.”

“Not all prisoners are hardcore criminals. Most of them are here because of their circumstances. They deserve a second chance. Making a living by selling their paintings helps them on their path to reformation. We proposed to give 50% of the value of the art to its creator in order to tell them that hard work pays and to ensure that their energies are used in positive pursuits,” said Kashyap.

The Tihar School of Art is affiliated to IGNOU and offers diplomas to aspirants.

The tales of riches acquired by some of their fellow inmates ha s encouraged several prisoners to apply to the jail’s art school. Rajesh Chauhan, superintendent of jail no. 4, from where the school operates, said they had received over 400 applications. “The demand for a school seat is high. Most of them (prisoners) had to be told that only those who have passed class 12 can apply for the diploma course,” said Chauhan.

Rahul Kumar, 26, said he had to paint a portrait of his mother to convince his family that he was earning while staying behind bars. “I told them that I would send them a cheque for ₹30,000. They were worried that I was doing something illegal inside the jail,”

Kumar said it was fate that brought him to the art school. Arrested for a murder, when he was a student four years ago, Kumar said he was depressed during the first few months of his stay in jail. “My friends in jail forced me to join art classes. We weren’t getting paid then. Perhaps it was fate that I realised my calling is in the art world. So far, I have earned ₹34,000.”

Ramesh Singh, who is the senior most among the painters helps amateurs learn the art. Apart from painting, Singh teaches students.

Currently, one of the highest earners at the art school, Singh said he was saving to pay his lawyer. “I have saved ₹50,000 to pay my lawyer. We are not hardcore criminals. We have come here because of the circumstances. My father is a farmer in Jharkhand. He was surprised when I told him that I am earning behind bars,” he said.

Besides paintings, the school is also home to some accomplished sculptors. Giant replicas of trees, animals, modern decor and a 15-feet replica of Eiffel Tower made out of scrap have been placed outside the school.

Mohammed Rafiq,27, who has collaborated on several sculptures, came to the prison six years ago. Rafiq said it isn’t only about earning money, it is about ‘repaying debt’. A native of Tamil Nadu, Rafiq had lost his parents and was raised by a Trust. Until he started working as a chef at an eatery, the Trust gave him shelter at a hostel and paid his college fee.

About two months ago, Rafiq sold his first work – a wooden conch. There were two more orders for a similar wooden conch. When the prison department deposited his earnings of ₹15,000, Rafiq sent a cheque for ₹8,000 to the Trust as a donation. “It was my way of thanking them but they refused to accept the money. They said that to know one of their boys is doing well and is on the path of rehabilitation is enough for them,” he said.

The school had started from a nondescript quarter inside jail no. 4, which once housed the jail library. In July 2016, superintendent Rajesh Chauhan, who had seen prisoners painting in their free time inside prison, suggested starting a school of art to the top officials.

“We decided to have a gallery of our own inside the prison. We took the help of volunteers from Delhi University’s School of Art and set up our own art school. Prisoners who were interested in visual arts and painting could come and study here. That was how we started,” said Chauhan.

Having started with 10 students, the school has 150 enrolled prisoners today. Among the works displayed in the school gallery are paintings of modern art to scenery and portraits.

The proposal to sell the works of art was made seven months ago. In the last four months, the prison has displayed paintings at different art galleries in Delhi, Gurugram and Jaipur.

First Published:
May 22, 2019 07:16 IST

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