As prisoners from Kolkata’s Presidency Correctional Home perform the golden jubilee production of Tagore’s Valmiki Pratibha, it is clear that the medium of culture therapy has come of age

The prison is just one step away from the proscenium where a cast of about 50 convicted prisoners step into their roles as they find a means of creative expression in Rabindranath Tagore’s dance drama Valmiki Pratibha. Their production of Tagore’s narrative about the transformation of the dacoit Ratnakara into saint Valmiki has met with tremendous success – its golden jubilee performance was held in Kolkata last week.

 “Even for a production of what may be described as mainstream theatre to be as successful, a golden jubilee is cause for celebration. For us to have achieved this feat is truly overwhelming,” said a visibly emotional Alokananda Roy, the director of the dance drama, which began as an initiative of the culture therapy programme in the correctional homes in West Bengal.

It started off as a workshop for prison inmates who were interested in dance – about 60 prisoners had signed up for the first session at the Presidency Correctional Home in the city on March 25, 2007. None of the participants of the workshop had any experience in dance, Ms. Roy recalled.

Over time it evolved. The chance discovery of talented Chhau (traditional folk dance originally from Purulia and Bankura districts) dancers in the Midnapore Correctional Home with their dramatic masks led to the incorporation of the tribal dance form into the production. Elements of the other traditional dance form from Bengal, Dhunuchi nach – performed with the prop of smouldering coconut husks in an earthen cup – were also weaved into the sequence where the dacoits pay obeisance to Goddess Kali.

A year and a half later, the fully indigenous production (every aspect of the play including the soundtrack, costumes, its elaborate props and set has been produced by the inmates and staff of the prisons) was ready for its first show within the campus of the correctional home.

On the way obstacles like organising rehearsals had to be worked around. Male and female prisoners are a part of the cast, but as they are lodged in separate prisons most rehearsals are held separately with a few joint-sessions organised just ahead of the shows.

With its spectacular stagecraft and lighting – the dance of the peacocks and that of the deer still draws gasps from the audience – it is on par with any professional outfit.

The story of Nigel Akara, who has played the protagonist in all 50 productions, has attracted the most attention. Convicted on several charges including murder, Mr. Akara’s life appears to have imitated art. Three years after he was cast as Valmiki, he was released on grounds of his conduct – a phenomenon that inspired a Bengali film Muktadhara, which released earlier this year.

But the play’s central theme – the renunciation of violence by a hardened criminal who eventually finds his calling in creative expression – has resonated with many more of its cast.

“Since its first production, about a hundred prisoners have taken it in turns to be cast members. Like Nigel, about 50 others have been released and not a singe case of a re-offender has been reported so far,” said B. D. Sharma, the former Additional Director General of Correctional Services, who initiated the culture therapy programme.

 The concept of parole, usually granted to prisoners to spend time with their families, was used innovatively by Mr. Sharma as he allowed the prisoners permission to travel first within the State and later to other cities in the country. Over the last four years, Valmiki Pratibha has travelled to cities including Delhi, Bhubhaneswar, Pune and Santiniketan. Not once have any of the performers attempted to make a run for it.

The first play to be put up by prisoners under the programme was another of Rabindranath Tagore’s creations, Tasher Desh, by the inmates of the Berhampore Correctional Home. Mr. Sharma acknowledged the support of the then Chief Minster Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who personally attended their maiden performance in May 2007.

Mr. Sharma, who also lent the vocals for the songs of Valmiki when the soundtrack was recorded, recalled how the idea had been dismissed as ludicrous when he first suggested it. But as it grew in popularity Valmiki Pratibha broke several barriers.

One only has to watch little Arshita, the daughter of one of the officers of the prison who plays the role of the girl whose fear of Ratnakara is pivotal in his transformation to Valmiki. Her interactions with the prisoners, both off and on-stage, are testament to how much attitudes have changed.