Pondy’s ‘Aura’ handcrafted behind bars
The UT prison — Auro model project collaboration helps inmates earn a livelihood by training them in crafts & selling products in markets in India and abroad
PUDUCHERRY: t’s the usual dusk hour scene along Puducherry’s promenade, streets bustling with tourists, waves crashing to the sound of music and vendors busy stacking products. While some follow the aroma of hot coffee and head towards quaint little cafes, others go in search of pretty, little souvenirs in the roadside shops. Amidst all the cute stores, a sea-facing and aesthetically pleasing ‘Aura’ stands out. The highlight of Aura Experience Store is definitely its products but the story behind the making of some of them will leave you in awe.
Cut to Puducherry central prison. A few inmates are engrossed in handcrafting and other art works. A few are assisted, while others give an impression of being professionals. From colourful wall decors and stitched garments to classic wooden tea trays and handbags — they hand-craft everything.
As part of an initiative by Puducherry prison authorities in association with Sri Aurobindo Society (SAS) to impart life skills under the Auro model prison project, the inmates here have been putting together multiple handmade items for the past one-and-a-half years.
Beginning with the story of Sakthivelu, who landed in the prison at the age of 18 after being convicted in a murder case. To everyone’s surprise, life took a U-turn for him as he acquired skills in crafting not just as a hobby but for a livelihood. After 16 years of prison life, he got released eight months back to a new world of opportunities. His handmade products are finding their ways into national and international markets.
Mamta Prem of Sri Aurobindo Society, who is a major face in the project, says the skills were taught by professionals from Auroville and SAS. “Initially, three inmates — Sakthivelu, Erlam Pereira and Prabhakaran — were given training in block printing for a month. Thereafter, Warli art, marbling art, and fabric printing were taught to two others — Ravindran and Mohamed Nazir. Right after the training, they started making the items. With practice, they improved and were subsequently given advanced training too,” says Mamta.
“We also trained the prisoners who were small-time tailors so that they could make quality products. This was never a miracle that happened in a day or week. They made mistakes, they practised and gained perfection,” she adds and clarifies that the aim of the project was not to make money out of the items but to provide art therapy to the prisoners.
After a while, however, the inmates, who were hesitant to take part in the training initially, started experimenting and coming up with new items. This made the organisers expand the project by providing advanced training to whoever was interested. “It was Sakthivel who made handcrafted miniature wooden toys and articles which now sell so well. Sakthivelu remains associated with Sri Aurobindo Society even after his release,” gushes Mamta.
She also recalls Khaleel Rahman, who used discarded coconut shells to make articles like soap cases, key rings, pen stands and jewellery boxes. “The only way we helped him was by providing the tools and materials,” she says. “Nazeer Muhammad came into the prison as a murderer. After an art therapy workshop, he got involved in painting and now creates beautiful designer shirts. Each of them amazes us every day,” Mamta adds. Muhammad also makes a steady income from the sale of the crafts.
The products, of international quality and perfection, are marketed by Sri Aurobindo Society through its Aura Experience Store on Beach Road. They are also showcased in exhibitions in and out of Puducherry. The most recent one took place in Shillong on June 26 and 27. Both local and international tourists buy these products. A Swedish woman, Sita, who comes to Puducherry to visit her mother, has been procuring the items and selling them in her place, says Pradeep Prem of Sri Aurobindo Society.
So far, she has procured hand and block printed bags in bulk. Similarly, a woman from Hyderabad procured wedding return gift bags (thamboolam/shagun) in bulk. The Army Wives’ Welfare Association buys items for selling at various places, which benefits both the prisoners as well as widows of soldiers.
What started as a small idea to make prisoners engaged has now become a venture reaching continents. When you pick up an item from Aura, you are not just owning a well-crafted material but a piece of art that therapeutically changed many a life for the best.
(Edited by Anagha R Manoj)