Nanjunda Swamy was 24when he was arrested by the police in July 1999. He was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment a few years later. Swamy was a farmer, and had never been to school. After 17 years, he was released, in 2016, for good conduct. Today, Swamy works as a sales promoter in an Ayurveda company, speaks Hindi, understands English and converses in Tamil as well. He attributes all this to the confidence he gained in prison by taking part in theatre.
Swamy is one among many prisoners in Karnataka who have found a new life and calling by taking up theatre. Some of them are now full-time actors in television shows, while others take on lead roles in plays directed by noted theatre director, Hulagappa Kattimani, of the theatre group Rangayana in Mysuru.
For 20 years now, Kattimani has been training prisoners in acting. He works through Sankalpa, an organisation he set up with his wife Prameela Bengre, also a theatre artist, in 1997, to explore how theatre could transform prisoners. As of now, nearly 500 prisoners, convicted for various serious crimes including murder, have been trained. A majority of these prisoners are now out of prison, having serving their sentence. Some of them are still in touch with Kattimani and participate regularly in his shows.
“My life changed after I entered theatre,” says Swamy, a native of Kerehalli in Nanjangud taluk near Mysuru. He was first drawn to the stage in 2008 when he was in Mysuru prison. His first role was that of a sharana or devotee in Taledanda by Girish Karnad. He has since acted in many plays directed by Kattimani, including as Oswald in Shakespeare’s King Lear .
“I played a policeman in Kastur Ba, my first public play, held at Ravindra Kalakshetra in Bengaluru. I had to wear khaki for the role. I was trembling at the thought of facing the audience. But their response moved me,” he recalls.
Sharath Shettigar, 38, of Kundapura in Udupi district, now works as a supervisor in a Mysuru hotel — he was released from prison in 2015, after 15 years behind bars. He too cites theatre as having transformed his personality. He started acting in 2006, in the sixth year of his prison term. “Theatre taught me patience,” he says. He has played Banquo in Marayaka , based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth , Ramugonda in Chandrashekhara Kambara’s Huliya Neralu, and Shakur Master, a revolutionary, in Jayant Kaikini’s Jategiruvanu Chandira . He has also participated in various theatre festivals, including one organised by the National School of Drama in Delhi.
“My involvement in theatre helped my early release. The committee that recommends names for release on the basis of good conduct took into account my theatre activities,” he says.
It all began in 1997 when Kattimani visited the central prison in Bellary (now called Balalri) along with some of his Rangayana colleagues. “As theatre artistes, we need to observe people from all walks of life. B.V. Karanth, the founder of Rangayana, took us to the prison as part of our training . There, I thought of directing plays for the inmates. Karanth had actually spent two months in a prison in Madhya Pradesh — there he had taught music and acting to the inmates,” says Kattimani.
Kattimani recalls one prisoner, S.V. Ramesh of Chikkamagaluru, who played the roles of Mahatma Gandhi in Kastur Ba and Basavanna in Taledanda . “He is a good actor and performed both roles very well. He was so involved in the characters that he started reading Basavanna’s vachanas and came to understand Mahatma Gandhi by reading his works. In the process, he changed significantly,” says Kattimani. “The roles he played were very different from who he was in real life, and that impacted him.”
Theatre has the power to transform whoever it touches, not just prisoners. Kattimani talks of its effect on policemen: “Earlier, two policemen were assigned per prisoner when they went for rehearsals and other theatre activities. Over the years, things changed. Now, if 30 prisoners are staging a play, hardly eight policemen are deployed.”
IPS officer Gopal Hosur, who encouraged theatre when he was in service, has continued his association with Sankalpa even after retirement. “M.P. Prakash, the late politician, who served as Home Minister and Deputy Chief Minister, helped us a lot. The Kannada Culture Department provides funds for productions,” says Kattimani.
Now, for the first time, Kattimani is planning a production for former prisoners. Sankalpa is conducting training workshops for 15 of them. It promises to be the start of a new life.