The sessions are over for the day. Alokananda Roy stands up from the front row and finds herself in the middle of a circle, girls wishing to speak to her, taking photos with her. Smiling, obliging, she answers them all patiently until finally she settles at the back of the hall at Center Hotel, Kochi, where a Women’s Leadership Conclave was put together by the Kerala Management Association. A little before, she has been on stage to tell her wondrous tale — taking on prisoners at the Presidency Jail in Kolkata, teaching them to perform on stage, and touring with them across the country, completing 145 stages so far.
It was exactly ten years ago, on a Women’s Day that she made a visit to the Presidency Jail that would change the course of her life. And more importantly, the lives of many others she saw there that day — the prisoners with little hope in their eyes. It all happened suddenly. A veteran dancer trained in classical art forms, Alokananda took a workshop on dance to put together a little performance at the jail. At first the men were reluctant. They didn’t want to learn ‘feminine dance forms’. So Alokananda got someone to start them off with Kalaripayattu. After Kalaripayattu they were open to learn folk dance. And that first jail performance called Brotherhood Beyond Boundaries was a mix of both. They had a few guests for that show and one of them spoke to someone about the quality of the programme. They got invited to perform at the Uday Shanker Dance Festival. “When people came to watch prisoners perform, they never imagined it’d be so professional. They got a standing ovation, even requests for autographs. That changed them. They realised that they were punished for the wrong they have done, and now they are applauded for the good they are doing. They never wanted to do wrong again.”
That public performance was a dance drama about Valmiki — Valmiki Pratibha, about how a dacoit turns into a sage. “I thought of the dance drama when I saw them changing. It’s their story. They are all my Valmikis because they are all transformed.”
It has not been easy for her. She faced plenty of criticism. “Some would say naacha gaana happening in jail and this woman comes in. I didn’t bother. Former IG B.D. Sharma gave me all support. Some people feared for me, because of my involvement with the prisoners. When they come out on parole, I take them shopping, sightseeing. But I am not scared. They are like my children, they will always protect me. We have been to so many places to perform — Mumbai twice, Delhi thrice, Bengaluru, Pune, Bhubaneswar. They could have escaped if they wanted to, we travel by train for two days. But they won’t do it, they won’t betray my trust. I never thought I will find moksha in a jail. That my spirit will be free in a jail.”
Unfortunately, she says, society does not accept them back easily. It is saddest for smaller criminals, because they won’t get a job anymore and end up getting involved in bigger crimes. “Once you are in jail, you are stamped for life. Things are changing after these performances, but only in a very small way.” For Alokananda, there was no such prejudice, no fear. “I have never been judgmental in life. When I saw them I thought they are somebody’s son too and I am a mother. No child is born a criminal. Things happen for various reasons. Poverty, environment, upbringing, sometimes greed. That doesn’t stop them from being a human.” She has faced challenges too. At 36, she was widowed, with two children and no job. “I had always danced for the love of it, not for money. So had to start from scratch. I later remarried but had lived on my own with my children, not with my second husband’s family. I didn’t want my kids to feel out of place. Today they are married and settled.”
That concern for children came when she saw the little ones staying with the women convicts inside the jail. So she started a school for them. “But I can’t take care of all of them, there are so many children outside, growing up with a label that they are so-and-so’s daughter or son.” It was after she took up teaching the convicts that she started charging for the dance performances. But even those went to the prisoners’ welfare fund, not for herself. “Those that got out are doing well — one is a truck driver, one a TT on the train, some are doing business, some are entrepreneurs. Nobody has gone back to crime. They have seen how people treat them as artistes on stage. They have tasted the goodness of being good.”