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The strength of conviction


SPREADING HOPE: The project's founders, Swatee Nair (left) and Margaret Mascarenhas

The latest addition to India's growing constellation of art hubs may just be Goa's Aguada Central Jail. A group of prisoners there have turned artists and appear to be displaying abilities that would hold their own even against art graduates.
But these inmates are also graduates, after a fashion, of an ambitious prison art programme launched in 2009 called Blue Shores. A motley group - a majority of which is made up of lifers - was preselected for the art programme and asked to participate in the creative processes laid out by instructors.

The programme is a four-year one with a fairly extensive arts syllabus that includes courses in painting, performance art and creative writing, all of which are conducted at the jail, which is located right by the Mandovi river in Goa's Sinquerim. Blue Shores was co-founded by abstract painter and theorist Swatee Nair in association with novelist and curator Margaret Mascarenhas.

"The measure of the prison artists' talent lies in the ability to create objects of aesthetic value out of severely limited resources, but primarily out of the impecunious conditions of the prison and the compromised raw material of the artist's own life story, " Mascarenhas tells TOICrest. The co-founders point out how the grim and unfortunate realities of prison life - boredom, the desire to escape, the oppressiveness of the jail cell - may also be enabling. "We have seen their worlds expand through their imaginations beyond the cramped quarters, limited light and narrow vistas of their prison cells. We have seen how artistic expression can emerge in this most restrictive of environments, " says Mascarenhas.

Works from the programme have even been exhibited. In December 2010 one such exhibition was held at the 'Sunaparanta - Goa Centre for the Arts' and was inaugurated by the retired cop, Julio Ribeiro. It included paintings on paper and canvas and a video installation called Becoming Blue. It was a charity event with all proceeds going to the Caritas Centre, Goa, which looks after homeless children with HIV.

The project was initially seed-funded by Sunaparanta, where Mascarenhas was director, when she was approached by Nair with the idea. The two had to provide documentation on global prison art projects around the world to Goa's inspector general of prisons, who turned out to be receptive and helpful. Funding also came from former National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) director Saryu Doshi through her family's charity foundation.

Mascarenhas and Nair were also inspired to develop content by international artist Liz Kemp, who sent them material on the Barlinnie prison art programme in Scotland.

A story of how the character of Valmiki in Balmiki Pratibha, a musical drama by Rabindranath Tagore, transformed a hardened convict from Kolkata into a top performer was used to introduce performance art to the class at the Goa jail by artist and dancer Crisologo Furtado. Since the class included men with varying levels of literacy, who spoke different languages, innovative ways to help them express themselves in words had to be developed.

"Naturally these men were not keen on full disclosure, openly discussing feelings or appearing vulnerable neither to us nor to their fellow inmates. Therefore, we worked predominantly on journaling and the study of metaphor - how to use words on paper like paint on a canvas. We called the class Word Art, " says Mascarenhas.

A typical week's schedule for participants entails producing one painting and one piece of writing and working on individual and collective body movement. The first year's syllabus was all about free expression;this year, the inmates are concentrating on memory in painting, memoir writing and script development for performance art.

"We treat each participant like a clean slate. Whatever these inmates may be outside the class, in class they have been model students, making an effort to be present and engaged even if they are unwell or depressed. One result is a breakdown of jail hierarchies in a mixed group of participants, where the inmates have to some degree bonded, " says Mascarenhas.
She and Nair are now in talks with Goa's department of art and culture on how the model can be carried forward.

"This is an unforgettable experience because it gives us the chance to be busy while in custody and a great way to express our feelings and emotions on paper through colours, " says Ritesh, an inmate, as he looks forward to this year's exhibition in November at the Sunaparanta centre. The art classes, it seems, are brightening up the inmates' lives.

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