Jailbirds in India grab eyeballs with an English play

Scene from a dance drama performed by jail inmates as part of the culture therapy initiative. (Supplied)

English plays are staged regularly in the Indian city of Calcutta where the legacy of British colonial rule is on display everywhere from the elite social clubs to breathtaking monuments and larger-than-life bronze statues of generals and statesmen.

But the latest production of Stagecraft, the city’s premier English language theatre group, The Teahouse of the August Moon, adapted from Vern Sneider’s 1951 novel, is a trailblazer. The entire cast of 13 men and five women are jailbirds!

The play premiered on December 26 at the plush Indian Council for Cultural Relations auditorium across the road from the American consulate even as prison guards and policemen in uniform kept a discreet watch on actors and actresses who are jail inmates. Another show is scheduled for December 30.

A play rehearsal inside the prison; the huge jail gate can be seen in the background

A play rehearsal inside the prison; the huge jail gate can be seen in the background

Reform and reintegration

Calcutta is the capital of West Bengal province which was under Communist rule from 1977 to 2011. With all good intentions, the Marxist administration renamed the state’s Jail Department the Directorate of Correctional Services (DCS) to stress on reform and reintegration instead of punishment and segregation.

DCS became a laboratory of long overdue prison reforms especially under the stewardship of B.D. Sharma, an Indian Police Service officer with a heart of gold and a head brimming with ideas to help the underdog.

In 2007, alarmed by rising mental illness among inmates, Sharma zeroed in on culture therapy - ranging from fine arts to the performing arts - to curb suicidal tendencies triggered by confinement behind high walls. He invited NGOs and celebrities to train prisoners to paint, sculpt, dance and act. Sharma’s culture therapy package proved so successful that prisons across India replicated it as a psychological welfare measure.

Directors Nandini Banerjee (left) and Krishna Ray. (Supplied)

Directors Nandini Banerjee (left) and Krishna Ray. (Supplied)

Inmates’ tryst

The staging of The Teahouse of the August Moon, directed by Nandini Banerjee and Krishna Ray, is the outcome of inmates’ tryst with theatre to light up their dark lives. The comedy, staged after numerous rehearsals and workshops, is set in post-war Japan where a US Army Captain is trying to construct a school and educate people about the importance of democracy.

“We chose convicts and under-trials with a degree of fluency in English. But they coped pretty well because essentially it’s Japanese characters trying to speak in English”, Banerjee, an advertising professional and daughter of a recently retired top civil servant, told Al Arabiya.

“Inmates have a stake as they notch up points for parole. Moreover, because they live such a regimented life, they welcome anything new and refreshing which diverts their minds from boredom and monotony. Rehearsals are compulsorily in prison but I never ask them about how they landed there or their legal history. I treat them as I would treat any other actor.”

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:52 - GMT 06:52