As he struggles to settle into life once more after his prison term, the inmates at Thane Central Prison continue to seek him for artistic guidance.
Published: 03rd November 2022 08:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd November 2022 08:00 AM   |  A+A-
Geography determines much. Beyond distinctive differences in landscapes, it controls divisions in our culture, food, and clothing habits, our beliefs and almost everything that constitutes life. There are yet, those grey areas that remain untouched by any such boundaries, one of them being the prisons of the world. Anywhere across the globe, prisons conjure up visions of dingy cells housing dangerous minds in stinking spaces and surviving on tasteless food—haven’t we had a million virtual tours of such jail complexes through our movies? Territorial dissimilarities blur and all prisons blend in the uniformity of appearances. 

The gloomy and colourless nature of these spaces naturally leads to a plethora of mental health issues. Much like the Avengers who rush to save the planet on screen, this is where art can come to the rescue in these overcrowded and stressful environments in real life. Captain Art can indeed build bridges between stark prison walls.
Art in prisons is certainly not a new concept. Back in 1875, the Prisoners’ Friends Society founded in America by a group of social reformers including celebrated writer Mark Twain, conceived the Prison Arts Program, and since 1977, art exhibitions have been held annually to showcase the artworks of prison inmates. Sixty per cent of the sales proceeds are given to the artists, while the remaining is given away to charities after catering to the exhibition expenses. 
India in no way lags behind in rendering colour to prisoners’ lives. In South Asia’s largest prison, Tihar, a School of Art was set up in 2016, to encourage prisoners to take up art and thus find avenues of self-expression. What started as an initiative that confined itself to prison walls has now evolved into a full scale art gallery, visited by art connoisseurs. With the sale of these artworks booming, many have been able to clear debts and support families while serving their sentence. At the India Art Festival, a booth was even dedicated to exhibiting these works of art created from the most unconventional space one could imagine.
When Mumbai-based artist Chintan Upadhyay, imprisoned for the alleged murder of his artist wife, Hema Upadhyay, was asked about his nearly six years in jail once he was released on bail in 2021, he remarked that it was art that kept him sane and alive. Picking up the paintbrush on an official request to paint a mural on prison life while in incarceration, he went on to create many more artworks, conduct workshops and took regular art classes for fellow inmates. As he struggles to settle into life once more after his prison term, the inmates at Thane Central Prison continue to seek him for artistic guidance.
Art’s potential to rehabilitate dehumanised prisoners awaiting absolution must be taken seriously. Creative freedom must be allowed as a therapeutic intervention. Repeat offences may perhaps be prevented thus. Confined to controlled environments for years or even a lifetime, providing a space that allows imagination to march on unhindered and untaught can prove to be freedom at its best for these chained souls. Let art in prisons free the imprisoned mind.

Jitha Karthikeyan is an artist and curator, passionate about making art accessible to the larger public.
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