Mind altering experience

Bapu Satyanarayana

Bapu Satyanarayana, born 1932 in Bangalore, retired as Chief Engineer, Ministry of Surface Transport. At present, he is the presiding arbitrator of the Dispute Adjudication Board appointed by the National Highway Authority of India. He lives in Mysore and enjoys writing for various newspapers and magazines on all sorts of subjects, including politics and civic issues.

During my life, I have seen many powerful drama performances which made great impression that lasted for a long time. Probably, the drama ‘Maara Nayaka’ (Kannada translation of Shakespeare drama ‘Macbeth’) that I witnessed on 12th February 2015 in Kalamanidara, Mysore is perhaps the one that lingers in my mind and will continue to haunt me for a long time.

The drama was organised by Sankalpa Art Group. It was different in many ways not because it was a virtuoso performance which it was or for the sheer professionalism exhibited and the host of other ingredients that makes a powerful impression on the spectators but beyond it was a tragic truth that the cast of the performance comprised wholly of prisoners from various prisons in Karnataka.

It transpired that these prisoners were condemned to spend their life behind prison bars languishing for periods decades and more.

The cast comprised of very ordinary and simple people mostly from villages who were once leading a peaceful family life till caught up in the web of circumstances. They perhaps in a fit of uncontrollable emotion committed a crime for which they were imprisoned in a fit of uncontrollable emotions or circumstances.

Most of them told the same story. Most of them confessed to their crime and were undergoing imprisonment for various periods. For others who only allegedly said to have committed the crime but were unable to prove their innocence. In some cases prolonged hearings of their case meant being in jail interminably. Prisoners of the slow moving criminal justice system suffer a lot in the process. Being poor they could not afford to employ senior advocates to argue their cases and were reconciled to their uncertain fate of languishing in jail with very little hope.

The publicity booklet in Kannada titled ‘Jail to Jail Rang Yaatre (Drama touring Group) told us in detail of how the prisoners were being trained in picking up new skills in sculpture, music, painting and plays etc . The authorities were ensuring that they got opportunities to them and to exhibit their new learning and be part of new history for prisoners.

The booklet also cites the example of Scotland where from 1952 prisoners were trained in artistic pursuits to enable them to lead a normal life in society after being released from the prison.

During the valedictory programme preceding the drama, Maara Nayaka and presided over by eminent personalities in the field of drama expressing their ideas, the audience was apprised as to how this project took shape. It is relevant to mention that it was given an initial push by former Police Commissioner Sri Revanna Siddiah. But for this particular play full credit must go to Sri Huligappa Kattimani of Rangayana for training the prisoners and practically living with them day in day out to share their life and to empathise.

The drama witnessed by us on that day was a stunning display of talent. The audience was spellbound for 90 minutes. It made such powerful an impact that at no time did the audience feel that it was being enacted by prisoners undergoing trauma of prison life.

It was only after the drama was over that the audience came to grips with the painful reality that the artists whom they saw on the stage exhibiting the whole range of emotions like joy, fun, anger, bravery, treachery fury, death, suffering etc. would have to return to their prison life with no hope of early release.

We spoke to some of the prisoners after the drama to hear their personal stories. Then, it was our turn to feel the tragedy of the situation to hear their stories. All of us were jolted to learn that for past 9 years no prisoner had been released as their fate was caught in the web of politics.

It is nobody’s argument that those who commit crime should not undergo punishment but to be incarcerated for long without any hope due to the caprices of the govt or the slow moving judicial process appeared rather to be rather cruel.

It was apparent that the prisoners were paying an additional price grossly disproportionate to their crimes. I am sure there were some prisoners who were actually innocent but continued to rot in jail because they were unable to hire anyone component to defend them due to lack of funds. The tragic irony was that we see was how people with power and money were roaming free after committing heinous crime or leading normal life being let free on bail.

Since 1997 the prisoners drama troupe was touring all over Karnataka and had performed nearly 150 times and even presented dram in Kerala besides exhibiting their paintings.

They were all enjoying the moment of glory beaming with pleasure to the enthusiastic clapping of appreciation of the audience.

There were some very interesting facts that I feel must record for public to know. In the beginning there was apprehension that when these prisoners would be taken outside they might try to escape. Thus there used to be heavy police presence that was gradually whittled down.

No prisoner escaped from these outings. I felt it was so because the prisoners felt so much transformed that they made no attempt to escape. Moreover each prisoner was so wedded to his part in the drama that he felt that he is like a link in a chain that binds all of them emotionally like a part of a family.

Another striking feature was that this experiment in drama was unique for Mysore and it had not been experimented with anywhere else.

The sole credit must go to the personal and emotional involvement and passion of Sri Hulagappa Kattimani. In this his wife had been a tower of strength. As I learnt there were in all around 30 people in the drama group with whom he was interacting.

I asked how this project had impacted the prisoners. Shri Kattimani told me with full conviction that all of them had been transformed as better human beings. He gave some practical examples of how the drama has changed the character of these prisoner artistes.

The question that arose was as to how individually and as a society we can help these prisoners.

We put the question to Sri Kattimani asking whether giving money to release them would help.

He replied that the matter is not that simple. He said we can appeal to the govt who have been provided the funds to meet the travelling expenses and other requirements for staging the shows.

But it appeared to us to leave the matter with the govt which alone could take action to help the early release of prisoners.

I have only tried to put the issue in the public domain and it is left for the individuals and wisdom of the society as how best we can move in the matter to bring an end to the trauma of not only to the drama group as such but the prisoners in general. At the same time a heavy responsibility is cast upon all of us as part of a larger society that when these prisoners are released we have to help to integrate them to main stream of life and not to attach any stigma and look them down on them for having spent time in prison.

Sri Kattimani had his theory that in case these prisoners continue for a long time in this fashion without any prospect of release, it is possible that there is very likely possibility of those now reformed reverting to their original Self because a certain ennui that may creep in out of feeling a sense of hopelessness, despair and anger.

And that would be humungous tragedy.


What an amazing story!
Kiran Bedi had a similar concept in Tihar.
"At Tihar, Bedi believed in reformation rather than punishment, and empowered them for a positive life. Her motto was not to incarcerate the prisoners but to give them hope of a better future once they step out as free people."
Bit, it was probably short-lived. This effort is much more impressive.

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