September 15, 2015

The writing’s on the wall at Tihar: A Black Elephant for St+Art India

by Anusha Narayanan

Of all the spaces in society, one of the most forbidden and forgotten are jails. Criminals on trial or those sentenced to punishment, once part of our society, are relegated to environments that isolate them away from us for a long long time, long enough for us to forget the sound of their voices. At the 2015 Kyoorius Design Awards, one of the projects that struck a chord with the entire jury was the Tihar Jail project, which befittingly won the Black Elephant at the awards night on 12th September, at the recently concluded Kyoorius Designyatra.



The Tihar Jail project was a part of the St+art Delhi Festival developed by the St+art India Foundation, co-founded by Hanif Kureshi (also the founder of Guerrilla). St+art India Foundation and its Festivals aim to promote art in public space, through a collaboration of artists from all over the world. The principle is that art is a public entity, not a museum piece, and thus bringing it to the streets, empowers people to interact with it.

During the festival, an art workshop was conducted with the inmates of Tihar, the largest complex of prisons in South Asia, as Hanif was in touch with the Deputy General of Tihar Jail at the time. “When we went to Tihar, we saw a lot of high, plain, blank walls inside. We were looking for such walls as they are ideal for graffiti and street art. So we approached the DG of Tihar, Vimla Mehra, and she asked us to take up the outer boundary. Although we had something else in mind, we realised the outer boundary which faces the public spaces (the main road) is 960m long – almost a kilometer!”



Because the scale was somewhat unmanagable, Hanif and the St+art team were initially hesitant, and meanwhile worked on other spaces such as the The Delhi Police Headquarters (where they painted the tallest mural of Gandhi), which the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi was invited to inaugurate. This visit wasn’t planned and suddenly they got a call from the DG of Tihar saying the outer wall had to be done, because the LG would be inaugurating it. Even before starting, the decision was made, and a period of 2-3 weeks was all St+art had to do the wall.

The project made use of a mix of handpainted type and local art in a style inspired by the kitschy, under-crafted ‘sex-advertising posters’ seen on the boundary walls running along many railway lines in the country. 10 local sign painters and 5 sign painters from Uttar Pradesh along with 15 young street artists from India and abroad, were involved to complete it.

The words were taken from a poem written by an inmate, titled “Chardiwari” (meaning “four walls” in Hindi). It talks of the longing and melancholy that one feels inside the four walls of a jail, away from the world outside and the idea was to get the voice from inside the prison, outside. Since the wall was almost 1 km long, the poem was wrapped on it repeatedly, and one can read it while passing by.



The big bold letters exude the local flavour of sign painting in India. The poem was originally a part of the book Tinka Tinka Tihar (which means ‘particle-by-particle Tihar’, or in other words, an interpretation of Tihar, bit by bit), which contains a collection of poems written by four of the female inmates. In executing the project, the challenges included the collaboration between the various painters, and the fact that Tihar was involved, which makes the whole context, unique and sensitive.

“It is quite a powerful environment and you can feel intimidated by the high walls and the large blank spaces. It is designed to make you feel small, so the discussions always felt different. It’s not like approaching regular clients and pitching what you feel like.”

The outer wall was divided into groups and each group took charge of painting a part. To interject the monotony of reading the wall continuously, illustrations were included at intervals. One of the biggest worries, apart from finishing the project in time, Hanif says, was that the main road running along the boundary of Tihar is a high-traffic road, and “I was worried that if people stop for too long or drive too slow in order to read the poem, there might be traffic issues or incidents.” This luckily didn’t happen.



The project also affected the team at St+art India personally. “We got to interact with many of the inmates too, and personally, it changes one’s perspective of a jail. It usually comes with a lot of negativity and we feel like everyone inside is truly horrible as a human. But when we did the workshop, what we realised was that, in that one moment when out of anger or fury or any ill-feelings, which probably didn’t last too long, people made mistakes for which they are punished for a lifetime.

They too regret it. And they do have hope that they will be free, because a majority of the prisoners inside are actually on trial. They hope to be released and be with their families. It is not just gloomy.”


A true moment of joy for the team was when the families residing in the surrounding areas, came by in special auto-rickshaws that were taking rounds of the jail, slowly touring the boundary wall, reading the text and taking pictures with the art. They would ask each other, “Have you seen that jail yet?”, as though referring to a monument or a tourist spot, and that gave the organisers and the artists, a special sense of pride.

The Tihar Jail mural broke the serious, gloomy darkness that one would imagine of a jail, and transformed it in to a book telling the story of those on the inside, giving it life. “Documenting a jail is not so easy, so what we clicked then is all we have,” says Hanif, when we asked him for photos.

It isn’t the pretty pictures that touched us anyway. It was the idea of decorating a space which one almost instinctively ignores while driving past, or looks with fear at, into something to enjoy. It ultimately serves the purpose of street art for the masses.

Kudos St+art India and congratulations!

The Tihar Jail project won a Black Elephant at the Kyoorius Design Awards 2015, on the 12th of September, concluding Designyatra 2015. The Blue Elephant winners can be seen here.

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1 Comment

  1. Shatakshi



    Loved the wall art and especially the use of an inmate’s poem. If possible please share the words of the poem. :)

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