New Delhi: The experience of prison and the death penalty were the themes of the performance The Tihar Players’ – The Gallows Project by Team Dastangoi at The Attic in New Delhi on January 5-6, 2018. Directed by the Peepli Live co-director, Mahmood Farooqui, the performance was a blend of music, poetry and dialogue, recreating the experience with performances of the travails of former inmates.
Beginning with depictions of Tihar jail, the performance was interwoven with a number of historical accounts as well – including readings of excerpts from Malcolm X’s accounts of his imprisonment in Charlestown prison, and a reading of a letter written by Maoist leader Kobad Ghandy to journalist and author of Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous, Sunetra Choudhury, remembering Afzal Guru.
“The idea was always to portray our lives while we were working inside in prison, because not only is it cathartic but it also gives you a distraction, therefore working to heal you at so many levels,” explained Farooqui, referring to his performances with the former inmates in jail.
The performance exhibited the everyday reality pertaining to the experiences of a man behind bars – from unpalatable food and water inside the jail to the system that makes bribing wardens an inevitable actuality.
Adding to this was former inmate Bilal Khan’s real-life demonstration of the blot that prison leaves on one’s life. “Whatever has been shown is real and a projection of our own experiences. Since we have been through it, it was easier to enact it,” said Golu, a former inmate and performer.
Juxtaposed against this thread of the realities of prison was the theme of positivity – many prisoners, much like Malcolm X’s account says, have enough time on their hands to learn how to read and write, among other things.
“In an atmosphere of negativity that is made worse because you do not have independence unlike the outside world, we indulged ourselves in drama. I practiced yoga and comforted those who seemed depressed,” says Dinesh Sharma, another former inmate, who, through his performance in The Gallows Project, showcased his determination to remain positive inside prison.
Set against the above background was prison reforms activist Vartika Nanda’s recitation of poetry penned by incarcerated women in Tihar jail from her book Tinka Tinka Tihar. A poignant excerpt from a poem by Seema Raghuvanshi, an undertrial at Tihar, dealt with the latter’s imaginations in prison, in a world beyond the cells of Jail no. 6 in Tihar.
Enacting Mirza Ghalib’s rumination on incarceration from Quaid-e-Hayat, a book based on the life of the Urdu poet, the performance by dastango Darain Shahidi featured the poet remembering the days of his childhood spent in the alleys of Akbarabaad (now Agra) – a pleasant world that had just drifted away in a blink of his eye.
The concluding act was by Farooqui himself, where he narrated Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol about his experiences in prison – particularly about witnessing the sentencing and execution of a fellow inmate.
“I saw the misery and helplessness that everyone goes through, when I was in prison. It is not a question of wrong or right but rather what one goes through,” said Farooqui when asked why he chose to do The Gallows Project. “I had read about so many writers, so many artists, who, after being imprisoned, left their writings, and such moving writings… It is time to showcase that again and make us reexamine the notion of punishment,” he added.
Shreya Valiramani is a final year student at Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat, Haryana, and an intern with The Wire.