Beyond the Bars

Mother Teresa once said – “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

When Alokananda Roy walked into Calcutta’s Presidency Jail on International Women’s Day, 2007, she did exactly that. Or perhaps a little more. As a guest speaker, she was invited by the Inspector General of Prisons, B.D. Sharma, to the Presidency Jail in Kolkata, but the visit changed her perception about a prison forever.

IGP Sharma, who was ushering in reforms in the jail and touching the lives of prisoners, had invited Roy to the women’s ward in the hope that she might be able to do something.  When the programme ended, she noticed that while the women were being involved in many creative pursuits, a number of young men roamed around aimlessly, with nothing to look forward to. What got her thinking was the fact that there were 2000 of them and something had to be done about it right away. As if on the spur of the moment, she set out to achieve the impossible.

After some thinking and planning, she came up with a programme that was much bigger in scope than what IGP Sharma had in mind and decided to train these male convicts in the one thing she was a master of—dance.  Her belief was rooted in the fact that it would bring a sense of new meaning into their lives.

The convicts—comprising mostly rapists and murderers, who listened to her, scoffed at her idea. They thought nothing could be more absurd. Nigel Akkara was also one of them. Ironically, enough, he had no clue that all this was about to change his life forever. He had been running with gangs since he was in school. Caught by the police while still in college, he was in jail for kidnapping, extortion and being an accessory to murder. His initial reaction was that the lady had gone off her head, or else, why would anyone come to the prison to teach 50 prisoners who were serving life sentences for the most heinous crimes. But, something nudged him, and, reluctantly though, he decided to give it a shot. Instead of brushing it aside after a few days of watching from the sidelines, he realised that he had actually got a second lease of life, as he slowly discovered, he had got more than just a dance teacher in her. That was the beginning!

But, before she began, Roy knew she had a problem. The convicts identified dance with femininity. Roy, then, decided to start off with training them in ‘Kalaripayattu’, the ancient Kerala martial arts form. This drew a good response. In six months, the convicts were ready to perform a dance drama, based on Tagore’s composition, Valmiki Pratibha. She taught them how to brandish swords and twirl scarves and the basic steps that they would require of jumping and kicking in rhythm and in unison.

In the early days, all the inmates called her Madam. As time passed, she became Ma to everyone, as they saw, how she wholeheartedly accepted them with love and affection. In fact, they had become one of her own.

Nigel acting in the play Valmiki, organised inside the Presidency Jail.
Nigel acting in the play Valmiki, organised inside the Presidency Jail.

During its’ first performance outside the jail, four guards accompanied Nigel. He was overwhelmed with the response and the experience of performing to a packed audience. When he saw their response, he became so emotional that he began to cry. He had found meaning in his life and now, there was no looking back. Nigel’s life was touched by positivity. He began to feel the transformation within himself.

In 2007, when the experiment had started, Nigel was a dreaded inmate with at least 18 charges to his name. The unbelievable transformation, he says, he owes to music, that came to him like manna from heaven and awakened deep spiritual insights. The 35 other inmates who performed the play are still serving their sentences. They are given separate lessons. But when they come to perform together, they work in harmony and perfect synchronisation.

In 2012, when Valmiki Pratibha was staged for the 50th time, it became a rare landmark considered to be unparalleled in the history of prisons anywhere in the world. What started as an experiment in culture therapy for hardened criminals, had reached a climax, as lifers performed for the public and convinced them that they were artists too in their own right. Nigel, being an ex-convict at the centre of this high-voltage production, earned the sobriquet of a real-life Valmiki.

This play, in turn, has subsequently inspired a Bengali feature film,Muktodhara‘ (The Flow of Freedom) which saw Nigel play himself in a story that was a reflection of his own life events.

All this, however, changed when Nigel left prison, after being acquitted in 2009. It was a tough battle for him to eke out a living in spite of all the changes that had taken place in his circumstances. Notwithstanding the fact that he was an accountancy graduate, Nigel was rejected at numerous interviews, the moment he mentioned his nine years in jail. Keen on proving himself, he took out a loan from his mother and set up a housekeeping and pest-control services concern. IG Sharma, and Roy came forward to help him by standing surety. When he started his own company, Nigel decided to tackle this issue of discrimination in his own way. He employed ex-convicts for jobs as cleaners, pest control technicians and even security guards to ensure they could all go back to a life of their own and move on, beyond the stigma that the prison sentence had brought them.

And life goes on. Even today, every time the play is performed, Roy reminds the cheering audiences that the concert is not the feel-good end of this story. She insists that the only way to help these convicts is to reform them and then, once they have turned over a new leaf, it is imperative to accept them for who they are. “Let this acceptance not end this evening” — she tells people when they come to watch a performance.

Roy may be just one of a kind and one can only hope that there are several such untold stories around the world. In particular, at the Tihar prison – supposedly the largest prison in Asia, the prisoners are being taught yoga and meditation so they can move on from their past. The prisoners are then taught vocational skills they can use to find employment when they leave. Roy has now set up an organisation named TouchWorld to rehabilitate those whom she has known and understood through her dance project in the prisons.

Nigel has managed a contract to maintain the gardens and premises of the Regional Institute of Correctional Administration in Dumdum, Kolkata, as also the sprawling quarters of police personnel in Alipore. He already has 12 people working under him and is keen on employing ex-convicts like himself, who are shunned by society.

It is said that dripping water hollows out the stone, not through force but through persistence. Alokananda Roy’s work shows us that change can come in many forms in people’s lives. It might come forcefully like a tidal wave, or creep along incrementally, like a glacier. But, with grit, determination and hard work, Roy has proven that even one thoughtful and committed citizen can change the world.


2 thoughts

  1. Good to know the entire history behind Muktodhara….I watched Valmiki Prativa once…good to read about it..keep up the good work

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