Weaving Behind Bars: Tapestry at Tihar Jail

Mehra, Priya Ravish is a freelance textile artist. Apart from teaching and design intervention she is actively involved in research and currently documenting the darning tradition in India.

Tihar Jail Complex in New Delhi is one of the largest prison complexes in the world with a total population of around 12,610 prisoners. In a year about 70,000-80,000 prisoners remain lodged in these prisons for different duration. This prison population includes about 531 women prisoners with about 51 children below 6 years of age dependent upon them.

Tihar Prisons have a history of reformation programmes in tune with the current correctional philosophy. Education, Cultural activities, Vocational activities and Moral Education etc. have been going on in Tihar Jails for a long time as a part of the efforts of the Prison Administration for reformation of the prisoners. In the last five years the process has accelerated and received world wide attention. The reformation package tried out by the Delhi Prison Administration is popularly termed as "New Delhi correctional model", the basic characteristics of which are:

  1. Bringing the community into the prison,

  2. Formation of a self-sufficient community of prisoners,

  3. Participative management.

Tihar Jail is famous for the production of a variety of goods at its factory in Jail Number Two. The factory - a fully modernised and computerised unit - engages convicts productively in various activities like tapestry weaving, carpentry, chemical-making, paper making, tailoring and baking. Many of these reforms were initiated by Kiran Bedi while she was the police chief at Tihar from 1993 to 1995. One such project was to teach the women inmates weaving techniques.

Period: 1994 -

Train the women inmates at Tihar weaving techniques and processes primarily as a medium of self expression and secondly an additional vocational skill which might be applied after their release. The intent was therapeutic. It aimed to empower the women socially, emotionally and economically.

In 1994, following an exhibition of her work at the British Council, Priya Ravish Mehra was invited to establish a tapestry weaving training program at the Tihar Jail. She maintains that tapestry weaving is an extremely introspective and meditative process. The fundamental characteristic of tapestry weaving is a simple frame on which weaving develops upwards - it is an open creative journey up the warp, one which she felt would channel the inmate's emotions and creativity slowly and methodically.

Priya began by presenting her work at the jail and gauging the interest of the inmates. Of those who attended the presentation and showed an interest in the program, twenty were selected to undergo training for three months. During these three months they were given a monthly stipend as an incentive to finish their training.

The aim was to make the inmates self-reliant so that even if Priya left, the knowledge would be contained within the community and taught from inmate to inmate. Due to the strict rules on what might be used or brought into the facility, Priya had to devise simplified looms which did not contain nails and could be used to spin by fingers as needles and shuttles were banned. Each trainee was given one loom to work on. These were movable so the inmate could weave both indoors and outdoors.

Workshops and classes were held on alternate afternoons for duration of three hours.

Though the objective was not only to create professional weavers but to create modes of self-expression many women should surprising skill, dexterity and aesthetic sensibility. It led the project leaders to organize an annual exhibition of the weaves at the Danish Ambassadors residence where the larger public appreciated and acquired the pieces. From the pieces sold, after the cost of material was removed the profit was placed in the bank account of the weaver inmate.

After the initial twenty women were trained they have continuously passed on their knowledge to the other inmates. Each weaver is provided with her own loom. The program continues though Priya's involvement stopped in 1997. She found that the level or lack of education did not affect the quality of the work produced. She imparted the most basic weaving knowledge so has not to hamper the imagination of the women. She learnt that because these women led such regimented and controlled lives projects like Weaving Behind Bars helped them to function beyond their assigned space, to live outside the walls.

For further information please contact Priya Ravish Mehra at prm@ndf.vsnl.net.in

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