An unusual break from daily routine at Tihar jail

Updated 15 May 2012
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An unusual break from daily routine at Tihar jail

Strutting across the stage wearing red stilettos, red lipstick and a flower in her hat, Samara Chopra was always going to be a hit with the inmates of Tihar high-security jail in New Delhi.
The audience of about 1,000 male prisoners whooped with delight as Chopra, lead singer of the Ska Vengers, ran through a high-energy one-hour set at an afternoon concert inside the prison grounds. Clapping her hands high in the air, and belting out ska, reggae and soul classics, she soon had the prison guards as well as the captive audience moving to the music.
The event was an unusual break from the daily routine at Tihar jail, a vast complex in the west of the Indian capital where 12,000 inmates ranging from trial suspects to convicted murderers are incarcerated. “Music is a force for good,” Chopra, 28, told AFP during a warm-up act by prison band The Flying Souls.
“It has the power to change people and is fundamental to all lives, including those inside prisons,” she said. “The interaction we have had with the people here has been great and I want to come back and teach here.”
The Ska Vengers, a popular Delhi band, have developed links with “Jail 4” at Tihar, and they held the gig to celebrate arranging for 300,000 rupees ($5,700) of music equipment to be donated to the prison by a music store.
“Jail 4,” one of 10 separate facilities within the prison, houses 1,615 inmates including 160 foreigners and 230 convicts, four of whom are on death row, according to an official register at the entrance gate. One of the convicted murders, Ashish Nandwana, 26, from Jaipur, was among the raucous concert crowd gathered in the prison gardens. He is serving a life sentence for stabbing a trainee flight attendant to death in a Delhi guesthouse in April 2008 after she refused to marry him.
“It is good to have music here. The prison is OK but we want to have events like this,” he told AFP before the concert.
Such grim personal stories seem at odds with the cheerful atmosphere at the concert, which was attended by guest of honor Neeraj Kumar, the director general of Delhi prisons and a keen advocate of music for inmates.
“We have been introducing music rooms and we are very happy to say that the response has been tremendous,” he said. “It is therapeutic. “Prisoners vent and give release to creative energies, and we are trying to reform them through music,” he said, adding that one female inmate had been suicidal until she had access to music instruments. “We have done this for one year now, including for Bengali music, Hindi classical and Western classical, but (Bollywood) film music is the most popular.”
Kumar said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the depth of talent among prisoners and that he had recently started a “Tihar Idol” competition to select inmates who will make a commercially produced album.
The idea of providing Tihar with better music facilities came from Stefan Kaye, the London-born keyboard player of the Ska Vengers who found very little equipment on offer when he held music workshops in the jail late last year. “Working with inmates is no different to working with anyone else,” he said. “They do usually want to tell me what crimes or charges they are in jail for, but I have never felt at all threatened.”
“In fact, they are just very keen to learn, desperate for anything to distract them from the monotony and negative thoughts of jail life. They take music very seriously and often display extraordinary abilities.”
Among the kit donated to Tihar were drum sets, tabla Indian drums, keyboards, amplifiers and crucial smaller items such as scores of guitar strings. “It helps so much, and perhaps the skills will be useful when they leave the prison,” said Kaye. “When I spoke to (Delhi music shop) Furtados, they gave us everything we asked for free.”
Tihar jail has a record of innovative rehabilitation schemes for prisoners including yoga, meditation, art classes and a shop selling products made by inmates.
Guards even allowed a handful of the jail’s best dancers to squeeze out of the crowd to show off their wildest moves in front of the stage, triggering the biggest cheers of the day from their delighted comrades. Support act The Flying Souls, a band formed in Tihar last year by three convicts and seven remand prisoners, struck a more poignant chord with their songs about loss, longing and the pain of separation.
“We’re all stressed. We’re all away from our homes and we miss our families. There are problems with our cases, they get so delayed,” said lead singer Amit Saxena, 35, who has spent nine years in jail as his murder trial drags on.
“It’s only when we’re in the music room that we don’t remember or think about all these things,” he said.
“Everyone really loves their wife or their family. Some people’s girlfriends are still waiting for them on the outside.
“We remember them, that’s why we write more romantic songs.”


Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

Jana Ghalayini’s work at Art Dubai invited visitors to draw on their responses.
Updated 25 May 2019
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Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

  • Female-led art collective wants society to rethink the way women of color are perceived
  • Banat Collective publishes artworks in print and online and hosts events to encourage debate

DUBAI: Sara bin Safwan founded the Banat Collective in 2016 to connect with other like-minded people, championing
their art through the group’s website, banatcollective.com.
The group aims to help society to rethink the way women of color are perceived by showcasing contemporary art, poetry and other writings. The collective publishes artistic works in print and online and hosts events aimed at spreading awareness and encouraging debate.
“A lot of the artists are young and emerging and never had the chance to be either exhibited or publicized, so we interview them to offer a critical, insightful look at their work,” said Safwan, 25.


Now an assistant curator at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Safwan graduated from London’s world-famous Central Saint Martins college in 2015 with a degree in culture, criticism and curation.
It was while studying in Britain that she developed a keen interest in post-colonial theory; the Banat Collective focuses on themes relating to both womanhood and intersectionality, which is an analytic framework to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those most marginalized in society.
“The mission is not only to connect artists but open up discussions about Arab womanhood in the region, because there’s not necessarily any other place to do so. We do that through art, poetry and other writings,” Safwan said.
“I use the word ‘womanhood’ to make it a more accessible term because if I use ‘feminism,’ it’s a very politically charged word that has almost been tainted by Western ideologies. And those Western ideologies don’t necessarily fit within our context as Middle Easterners.”
“In the Middle of it All” is the collective’s debut publication. Released in 2018, the book is a 31-artist collaboration of visual art, writing and poetry. Our book is a means to help us stand out — it’s thoughtfully curated and tackles a specific issue, which is ‘coming of age’,” she says.
“It’s a notion that’s taboo in the Arab world and either unheard of or misunderstood. It was a chance for female artists to tell their own story.
“Throughout the book, we go through many topics such as puberty, identity, sexual harassment and abuse, sisterhood, motherhood, beauty standards and all these other societal expectations.”
The collective held its first exhibition as part of March’s Art Dubai fair, showcasing a short film, “Ivory Stitches & Saviors” by member Sarah Alagroobi, which she describes as an “unflinching glimpse into identity, colonialism and whitewashing.”
Says Safwan: “It’s a tribute to all women of color who have been marginalized and, all too often, erased.”
Another work by Palestinian-Canadian artist Jana Ghalayini is comprised of a 26-meter-long piece of chiffon on which visitors can draw with chalk pastels in response to questions posed by the artist including “How does your environment affect your identity?”
Safwan adds: “The themes we explored were vulnerability and community — it was a way to introduce ourselves in person because previously we only had an online presence.”
Born and raised in the UAE to Honduran and Emirati parents, Safwan is now working with Alagroobi and Ghalayini to brainstorm ideas for future projects that include a podcast series on the notion of shame. The collective is self-funded and run by volunteers.
“I hope there will be more opportunities to showcase our work and collaborate with others. This year, we will be publishing more content,” Safwan said.

This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of The Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.