MUMBAI: A rare treat awaits Bengalis living in Mumbai and Thane during this Durga Puja, four performances by serving prisoners of Rabindranath Tagore’s famous dance-drama ‘Valmiki Pratibha’.
For the first time, Kolkata-based dancer Alokananda Roy has brought her dance troupe, comprising 48 convicts, including eight women, to perform during Durga Puja from Sunday in Andheri and Tejpal Hall (Mumbai) and Thane city and Vashi in Navi Mumbai (both in Thane district).
“They are all reformed, though many of them are undergoing jail terms ranging from four years 10 years and at least a dozen are serving life terms, around 14 years. They are all out on parole for the Mumbai trip. I don’t think there is any danger to society and they will never escape or make me hang my head in shame,” Roy said.
However, in view of the legal requirements, they will be accompanied by 10 police personnel from West Bengal and more from Mumbai as a precautionary measure.
The troupe is being hosted by Vashi Durga Puja’s prominent activist Dipika Sengupta. They will be put up in a civilian set-up to make them feel “free” and will travel to various locations in a special bus.
Mumbai’s four performances will complete Roy’s three-year long journey with the prisoners, notching a total 40 performances, including one in Orissa (April 2009), and now in Maharashtra. Her sheer dedication has made all inmates accept her as a mother and they call her “Maa”.
The Tagore-scripted famous dance-drama reflects the lives of the inmates performing it under Roy’s choreography.
“It depicts how the dreaded dacoit Ratnakar underwent a change of mind, heart and personality to transform himself into one of the most revered Sage Valmiki, and became a legend,” she said.
The title role of Valmiki in the 100-minute show is played by Nigel Akkara, a Bengali of Kerala origin, who has so far spent nearly 10 years in jail.
She said it is among the most popular dance dramas of Tagore and has performed mostly to full houses wherever it has been staged.
Barring the daily dance practice, the prisoners undergo special rehearsals for mega shows like Mumbai, which most are visiting for the first time.
Along with the gruelling prison schedules of hard work behind bars, the inmates also design and stitch their own costumes, apply their own make-up, prepare the lyrics for the songs and set it in music, and then have a full dress rehearsal — all without professional help.
Impressed by Roy’s dedication and the prisoners’ desire to make themselves worthy of returning back to civil society, the West Bengal Chief Minister, Ms Mamata Banerjee in August announced a Rs 300,000 group award for them.
“They are very excited about this trip and experience a sense of true freedom after a long time behind the prison walls. In fact, one of my troupe members spent most of his noting down the names of all the railway stations during the 30-hour Kolkata-Mumbai train journey,” Roy smiled.
The inmates hail from Presidency Jail, Midnapore Jail and Alipore Women’s Central Jail, and are mostly aged between 21 and 35, she said.
The inspiration for using ‘dance therapy’ as one of the tools to reform prisoners came from ex-Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Kiran Bedi and was implemented in West Bengal by former Inspector General of Police (prisons) V.D. Sharma.
He called Roy, who grabbed the opportunity and got into the act immediately.
She started researching among the prisoners, found out their potential and selected those who had the potential to perform in fine arts.
After training them, replacing new prisoners with old ones who either left after their serving their sentences, she has built up a formidable group of around 50.
“We make all efforts to make them perform out of the prisons walls to bring back their self-respect, bring out the best in their personality and afford them a better life within,” Roy said.
The day after their last engagement, the entire troupe will get a visual treat — a daylong sightseeing programme to important landmarks in and around the city.
Roy said after this, she plans to fulfil another dream – a performance in south Mumbai in memory of the victims of the November 2008 terror attacks.