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Once Upon A Bard

Once Upon A Bard

Author: Dola Mitra
Publication: Outlook
Date: September 7, 2009
URL: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?261522

Introduction: The role of Valmiki has transformed a hardened convict into a gentle soul, much like the sage himself

I have done some very bad things," Vicky says from his prison cell in Calcutta's Presidency Jail. The 30-year-old is six feet tall, he has grown a beard and wears his hair long so he can look the part he's playing-the lead in Tagore's musical drama Balmiki Pratibha, which traces the life of the sage Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana.

Vicky doesn't just look the part. There are those who say this well-to-do boy from a Kerala Christian family living in Calcutta, who was convicted for the kidnapping and murder of a businessman for ransom nearly a decade ago, has made the same internal journey from evil to enlightenment as did Ratnakar, the dreaded dacoit of the ancient world who become the sage Valmiki.

Vicky was studying in a well-known Calcutta college when, to use his own words, he "fell into bad company and became part of a gang of young men who were involved in criminal activities".

Prison authorities remember Vicky as arrogant, insolent, and seemingly without remorse for the murder he had committed when he was first put behind bars with a life sentence. The additional director general of prisons, West Bengal, B.D. Sharma, who has initiated various prisoner reform programmes in the state's jails, says Vicky was "rude and recalcitrant and refused to participate in these programmes". Sharma had invited Odissi dancer Alokananda Roy to teach dance to prison inmates as part of an experimental "culture therapy" programme in the prisons. "Vicky not only refused to participate, he looked on rather scornfully as I practised with other inmates," the dancer recalls. "But unfailingly, he would be there, watching us closely." She soon sensed "what I can only describe as an intense yearning in him to break free from some internal shackle of hate that bound him, and to reach out for love".

Sharma explains, "One of the most important aspects of reform is to make the prisoners aware that they have the potential for both good and evil. Their crimes, the subsequent incarceration and social stigma, have conditioned them to a deep-rooted belief that they are evil. Part of culture therapy is to help them control and even crush their demonic selves and aspire for the divine." Like Ratnakar did.

And so one day, when Roy was narrating the story of Balmiki Pratibha to her therapy students in jail, bringing out its allegorical significance, drawing a parallel between their own identities as 'criminals' and that of the rogue Ratnakar, she was also watching Vicky from the corner of her eye, to gauge his reaction.

And there beyond the bars of the classroom window which opened out on to the jail courtyard, Vicky was standing, his cheeks wet. It was raining that afternoon so she wasn't sure whether he was crying. But the next day, Vicky came up to Roy and said, "Mom, can I take part in the production of Balmiki Pratibha?" All Roy's students in prison call her 'mother', and she refers to them as her children. But that was the first time Vicky called her 'mom'. Roy had already decided Vicky would be perfect for the role of Valmiki. Sharma had told her the play would be performed outside the prison for a regular audience.

"I wouldn't have had the audacity to attempt a play of this stature-which is one of Tagore's masterpieces-had I not had an actor with a strong personality, who would be able to portray Valmiki with conviction," says Roy.

What no one expected was the extent to which Vicky would actually try to emulate the saint whom he was portraying. Sharma says he is stunned by "the complete spiritual transformation of this boy". He now spends hours meditating and reading. He is gentle and helpful with his fellow inmates. And when he plays Valmiki-there have been seven shows outside the jail, including one in Shantiniketan-he identifies so completely with the character of Valmiki that, says Roy, "the two become almost inseparable".

There's a scene in Balmiki Pratibha in which the character of Ratnakar-who has just come out of his state of ignorance and gone into the realm of ultimate truth-falls at the feet of the goddess of wisdom, Saraswati, played by Roy. "As he drops to his knees, his head bent, arms raised upwards in complete surrender," says a member of the audience who watched one of the performances in a city auditorium recently, "it's difficult to distinguish whether he is playing a role or whether he is playing himself. It's as if the two identities merge into each other."

Recently, Sharma granted Vicky and the other actors of Balmiki Pratibha parole. "They are our success stories," says Sharma. "The play required them to use items which are not allowed by the Jail Code-such as rope and fire-because they could be used as weapons to harm oneself or others. I had the rules bent to permit their use. There were fears they would attempt to escape if taken outside the jail. But they have never betrayed our trust."

Outside the prison, Vicky walks around Calcutta unescorted, and goes on his own to the local police station to register his attendance once a day, as required. This journey each day is a reminder of the distance that he has travelled on another journey-a journey that ended his long night of darkness.


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