Art from behind bars in India

April 2009 -

Two years ago Kavita Shivdasani, a value-educator, had a unique idea for bringing the realities of India into her classroom. She took her affluent group of young students on an educational tour of Mumbai's Arthur Road Jail. Here they met Baby John Parker, an inmate awaiting trial and an artist who adorned the stone floor of his cell in beautiful charcoal designs. This encounter spurred the class's interest. Over the following months they fundraised over Rs. 100,000 for materials so the works of five prisoners, two prison guards and one young Mumbai artist could be showcased together in an exhibit known as Art from behind bars and the people who put them there.


(c) 2009, Baby Parker

At the Bajaj Art Gallery at Nariman Point in south Mumbai a total of 129 pieces are on display. They range from charcoal sketches of traditional Kathakali dancers and the popular Ganesh to more contemporary acrylic paintings of Mumbai's dhobi ghat laundry washer's area and the soaring skyscrapers that now permeate the cityscape. "The idea is not to showcase why these people are in jail or to emphasize their past", explains Shivdasani. "What is important is their future and how happy and emotional the families are to retie bonds." The exhibit has plans to be shown in Pune. Ninety percent of the art sales go directly to the artists.

(c) 2009, Lalitha

Shivdasani worked with eight central jails across Maharashtra to find the artists. Some had never even opened an art book. Others had years of work behind them. Shivdasani gave complete artistic liberty for those with experience, and provided guidance for those without. The final list of selected artists includes two women and six men. Within this group is Lalita Gonugunta who is awaiting trial at Nagpur Jail and has an MA in Fine Arts, and Parker who prepared an impressive 45 pieces for the show.

The decision to include not only prisoners, but also 'those who put them there' is explained by Nishant Shah, the volunteer framing designer: "It's about the concept of cops, prisoners and the lay-man all doing art together. It shows art can be a concept of goodness that comes from all parts of society. Everyone can and should get a second chance."