Jail house play

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Street theatre is making its way from public spaces through the bars of prison homes, says Shriya Mohan

Caged drama TEHELKA Foundation theatre troupe performs for an audience of juvenile prisoners

WE ARE being checked. Stripped of all our belongings. No cell phones. No bags. No cameras. No wallets, rupee notes or loose change. A notebook and a pen? “Yes, that’s fine”, smiles Premoday Khakha, Probational officer of the Observatory Home for Boys (OHB) in New Delhi’s Kingsway Camp. Although called a home, the OHB is actually a prison home for 50 boys, all under the age of 18, put behind bars for various crimes – attempt to murder, murder, theft, robbery, drug trade and physical assault, to name a few. “Although you feel these are small boys, one can never say it is safe for women here. You enter at your own risk,” warns Khakha.

We are a motley bunch – 32 enthusiastic boys and girls in white t-shirts and jeans accompanied by four adults. Today will be the first theatre performance that the inmates have ever seen inside the premises. TEHELKA Foundation, which works on youth empowerment, is finding new ways of using street theatre to stimulate public thought. The actors are an interesting mix of students from various schools in Delhi and children from the Salaam Balak Trust, an NGO rehabilitating street children. In a month-long summer vacation workshop, the group has written and put together a play. In a dingy hall, as the uniformed inmates sit, the drum rolls echo in the emptiness of the prison home.

There are several stories enmeshed in the play titled Mere Haq, Meri Zimmedari (My Rights, My Responsibilities). Each scene presents different adaptations of the common man being exploited by those with influence. “Haan, aata hai, hamey gussa aata hai!” (Yes, we feel anger!) they chant in chorus. The play touches upon the Right to Information Act (RTI) as a possible route to solve many problems ourselves without blaming the government. It leaves you with a simple question — while we keep demanding our rights, do we fulfill our responsibilities? Can we not, as youth, be the change we want to see? “Theatre is an amazing tool to empower young people to explore their emotions without inhibitions. The process leads to inner transformation”, says Puneeta Roy, Director, TEHELKA Foundation.

“These children are very pessimistic. They feel that society has been cruel to them. Such plays are good. It helps draw them out of their shells,” says Anuradha Shukla, principal magistrate for Kingsway Camp, amid the applause and cheering. One such inmate is 16-year-old Kumar, who came from Uttarakhand to attend a wedding in Delhi in December 2008. That night, his group of friends got into a brawl. Using broken beer bottles, the fight took an ugly turn and a few were stabbed brutally. “I am here for half-murder”, says Kumar, adding that the term means, “almost a murder, not death.” Khakha explains, “These children believe they are innocent. Kumar might have only held the arms of a victim so that his friends could stab him, but refuses to understand that he played an important role in committing the crime. They are here not to be punished but to understand why what they did was a crime.” While efforts to provide free counseling sessions for students have a lukewarm response, watching a theatre performance like this helps them to open up and talk about their lives.

AFTER DELHI witnessed serial bomb blasts in 2008, security has tightened to such an extent that even performing a street play in a public space needs 15 days of running around to get the necessary approvals. All this is making street theatre less accessible. But Aakriti, 16, an actor in the play, is still hopeful. “We are not performing to influence everyone. Making a small section think is what we are aiming at,” she says. Ask them if they have filed RTIs and almost all the hands shoot up proudly. “I had once filed an RTI to find out why our school had little parking space. In 3 months time, we were allotted more parking space and more attendants to handle the traffic outside and help park,” says 17-year-old Akansha from Blue Bells School.

How do the boys spend their time? “Apart from waiting for our hearing, we sleep a lot. That’s the only way we see the outside world”, says 17-year-old Neeraj. And after a pause, he asks longingly, “But will you come back again?” Life at the OHB has stirred. Inside the prison, there is life that moves and dreams that need rekindling. When released out into the larger hostile world, even if one of the boys remembers that there is an alternative to crime, it would be worth the drama.

(Names of inmates have been changed to protect their identities)

WRITER’S EMAIL
shriya@tehelka.com

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