KOCHI: Every time dancer Alokananda Roy steps into the Presidency Jail, in Kolkata, there is a lot of clamour for her attention. “Ma..Ma,” they call for her. “Where were you? Why didn’t you come earlier?”
These are questions that need answering, but not before the relief and happiness show so obviously on their faces.
Kept within the confines of jails for years, it is no surprise that Alokananda’s constant presence has breathed life into the lives of these prisoners. What is inspiring, however, is the depth of passion, that drives the 65-year old dance teacher in changing their lives.
Alokananda, who was in Kochi recently, remembers how she was touched by the young men and women, who were lodged in the Presidency Jail, where she had gone to attend a Women’s Day event in 2007.
“The boys looked so lost. It was obvious in their body language.
They reminded me of my own child and suddenly I was weeping inside for their mothers. I felt that dance could bring a change in their lives, which is why I decided to talk to the then Inspector General of Police, Sharma, who agreed to arrange a meeting with the prisoners,” she said.
In the first meeting, Alokananda was warm and open. She told them that she didn’t care how they ended up in prison, only that she wanted to help them. “The prisoners, between 20-40 years of age, started opening up. The girls were willing to try their hand in learning the folk dances, but the boys were very shy.
I realised that I needed to breach the protective armour they had built around them, which is why I began teaching them the martial arts. When they began feeling enthusiastic about the dances, I slowly switched to the classical dance forms of West Bengal, like the Dandiya and the Purulia,” she said.
Soon, 60 prisoners -- 50 boys and 10 girls -- were training under Alokananda inside the jail. “Though we held a small event inside the jail where the top brass of the police were present, I decided it was time that the jail inmates were taken outside for their first performance. This was held at the Udaya Shankar Dance Festival in Kolkata,in the presence of a heavy police guard,” she said.
The theatre was packed as people were very curious to see the prisoners perform. So far, the dancers have performed more than 150 times across the country.
Most of the performances are based on dance dramas -- about Emperor Ashok, Jesus Christ and legends. “I ensure that there are moral lessons, like forgiveness, which these prisoners can imbibe from the dances. I remember one of them telling me that he could not be like Jesus Christ, because he was not that forgiving,” she laughs.
Most of the prisoners whom Alokananda has taught have been released from Presidency Jail (now only for men) and the Alipore Correctional Home for Women. New ones arrive at these jails and Alokananda is teaching them too.
“When I first started teaching them, people were sceptical. They asked me how I had the courage to spend time with the prisoners. However, for me, jail is like a second home. I believe that that even prisoners, who have committed serious crimes like murder are human. Most of them ended up in jail, because of a moment of weakness. They deserve a better life,” she adds.
Alokananda’s model of teaching prisoners has been inculcated as a syllabus in Jawaharlal Nehru University at New Delhi and law colleges in Kolkata. She plans to create more awareness of the prisoners’ performances across the country.