Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On Hulugappa Kattimani, Inmates Who Perform Shakespearean Plays: In BLInk

What a fascinating story this is. Prison reforms is a great idea as it is, instead of just shutting away people for years and expecting them to always turn their lives around once they are out. Here is a story of a theatre person who wondered why jail inmates couldn't be introduced to theatre. This story was published in The Hindu BusinessLine's supplement BLInk, as part of a Shakespeare special commemorating 400 years of his demise.

Read the story here or see below. 


A chance visit to the Bellary jail led Hulugappa Kattimani to pass on his theatre acumen to prisoners, some of whom have been profoundly affected by the onstage experience

There is a phrase in Kannada that is often applied to the learning of the English language, that it is like an iron peanut — hard to bite into, impossible to digest. A large dose of Shakespeare may be a similar bagful of peanuts.

Most schools teach the bare basics: a few oft-repeated phrases here and there — a rose by any other name; thereby hangs a tale; to be or not to be... Relegated invariably to the realm of high-brow culture, it is a wonder then that there is a section of people, some illiterate, some not-so-well-educated, stagingMacbeth and other works by the Bard. They are prisoners, most serving life sentences, most falling into the stereotype of hardened, aggressive, jailbirds. And thereby, indeed, hangs a tale.

Why Shakespeare? I ask Hulugappa Kattimani, actor, theatre personality and the man behind this marvellous idea of staging plays with jail inmates through his organisation Sankalpa. “Guilt and redemption play a main role in Shakespeare’s stories,” he says, seated in his gorgeous antique rosewood furniture-filled house in one of the newer residential layouts of Mysuru. Rangayana, the government-run theatre institute and repertory where Kattimani works, is hosting its annual children’s camp, with some 400-plus seven- to 14-year-olds, and it is too noisy for a chat. “Shakespeare’s plays are relatable to the prisoners’ state of mind,” he says, adding that the desi-fication of the plays helped the inmates understand the story better. Thus, in Macbeth, the Tiber river became Tapati-nadi, Rome became Maggipattana and Macbeth became Maranayaka.

Kattimani’s pioneering attempts at prisoner reforms through theatre is nearly two decades old now, beginning as a wild experiment inspired by the teachings of his guru, the stalwart BV Karanth. “He used to tell us to merge with people, that theatre is not just reciting dialogues, you need experiences. He told us to observe people closely, in railway stations, on the road.” A chance visit to the infamous Bellary Jail, where some of the most hardened criminals are housed, made Kattimani wonder if theatre could be used to help reform at least some of them. Gopal Hosur, the then Superintendent of Police at Bellary, got all the permissions (he later retired as Director General of Police and remains the chief advisor at Sankalpa). It was as radical a thought then as it continues to be now.

“We started by teaching the prisoners yoga, clay modelling, painting, and so on,” says Kattimani, admitting that it was tougher to make the police department understand. He has several anecdotes to share, poignant stories of prisoners reformed by the power of theatre. There is the man from the Hakki Pikki tribe with the long beard, who refused to talk to anyone. Then there’s the actor who didn’t consider escaping when they were on a trip to Shravanabelagola, because as he said, if he ran away, who would play his part in the evening’s performance? And the other actor who internalised Stanislavski’s method acting (that Kattimani taught them) to such an extent, that after playing Gandhi, he turned vegetarian, mild-mannered, and gave up cussing. There are also the changes the prison and police departments have gone through, seeing the effects theatre has had on the inmates.

In the last 18 years, the troupe has had over 150 performances in several parts of the state and the country. Dwelling on prison reforms, Kattimani explains how the idea of a karagraha, a jail, is to destroy criminal intent, but when the prisoners are rarely seen as human, they lose something and the society sees them differently too, once they are released. “Through theatre, they learn life lessons,” he adds. Over the years, he has steadfastly refused to vouch for anyone and ask for their release, even though such requests keep coming his way. Neither does he ask why they have been jailed or what their past is.

Would he care to replicate the model elsewhere, I ask, given how successful it has proven. “There is so much to do here alone,” he replies. Among the things he now has planned is an idea he has long been mulling over. Several of the prisoners who made up his troupe have now been released and are back in their hometowns. “I want to start a seasonal repertory for them, where they stage plays for six months and go back home for the rest of the year. Or they can stay on a piece of land, where they can live, farm and share the produce. They should be able to farm by day and immerse themselves in theatre in the evenings,” he says.

There are plans to form a team of about 50 inmates, taken from eight to 10 different jails, and stage a four- to five-hour-long play; maybe Crime and Punishment, maybe something on 1857. Kattimani no longer asks them whether they can sing or dance when he is choosing them for plays. “I now ask merely if they are interested, because life experiences are more than enough to do theatre,” he says.

Deepa Bhasthi is a writer and the editor of ‘The Forager’ an online journal of food politics.

(This article was published on April 22, 2016)

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