Photographs of the (now demolished) Bangalore Jail

Invisible Town

An essay by Raghav Shreyas

When I first visited the jail, it was not to photograph it, but to organize a film shoot. I entered the space with M. K. Raghavendra, critic and novelist, who wanted to make a fiction film on the space. I’d agreed to do the production even though I had no clue how to go about it. Anyhow, I had to see the space to organize the production. We went into the jail and I was flabbergasted.

It was a world of peace and silence. After experiencing the crude traffic outside, this silence seemed unnatural but very powerful. And just after I had seen roads teeming with people, the 22-acre jail was empty except for three of us. The jail looked and felt like a silent town, as if suddenly left behind by occupants who had forsaken their century-old habitation. The marks of their culture still remained, breathing, beckoning me from all sides, all at once.

Up until this time, I had seen jails only in movies, mostly sets, and when a movie used a real jail it was only as an out-of-focus backdrop. With this in mind, the experience of this empty jail was even stronger. And what I saw presently did not match any idea of any jail I had had so far – I saw several paintings, temples, a mosque, dormitories, a library, a furniture factory, flat stones to wash clothes on, an auditorium, a school, and even a shop that sold all sorts of stuff including eggs and toffees, envelopes and pickle, peanuts and buns, not to mention fancy soaps and cigarettes!

I was gripped.

With help from my friend Adarsh, and with help from a non-governmental organization, The Dharani Trust, I obtained permission to photograph the space. (Adarsh stuck with me till the end of the shoot, helping me with equipment and looking for various things and scenes to photograph.)

As I photographed, the jail seemed to offer more and more surprises. I’d planned on a three-day shoot that extended for a month. Everyday we discovered something new, and suddenly a seemingly trivial thing took on a special aura – a Bible, a dumbbell or a cigarette butt came alive in the silent space. Every painting seemed more powerful than a work of art, all the more so because it was not an art gallery, and the critic was clearly missing. I had a childish feeling of discovering a space for the first time, a space that seemed buried in history for eons.

The murals were all of religious deities, a dim presence within lowly lit spaces. There were three of the major religions represented there – the Hindu, the Muslim and the Christian, silently communing with each other. The paintings were made in an Indian poster painter’s style, in vivid colors, and the subjects were perhaps copied and improvised from calendars and posters. (Some later said that the prisoners made the paintings. I’ve planned on a research on the conjecture.)

Apart from the paintings there was an elaborate montage featuring the most popular film stars. There were others: a big sticker of a famous, cult movie by Rajnikath (worshipped as a demi-god in Tamil Nadu), a small sticker that said ‘Jesus Loves You’, a cut out of an advertisement of a fairness cream, a host of stickers of gods from various religions, and elaborate stencil inscriptions on various walls.

I made a thousand five hundred pictures of the space, and a hundred photographs have now become an important document with the government of Karnataka. Incidentally, my photographs are the only detailed document of the erstwhile jail.

Interpretations of the Place/Photographs

There were several interpretations I received after friends saw my pictures. Some had even seen the jail with me. Jai Iyer, a friend with whom I discuss all my intellectual issues, provided the first clue to my pictures. My photographs show the jail, he said, as if it’s not one. “First of all it’s an empty jail. People are used to seeing or imagining jails occupied by prisoners and cops. It’ll be best, even at the risk of repeating a cliché, if you show pictures of vast open spaces first, and then show the details.” He also made me realize that our dominant ideas of a jail, however rudimentary they are, come from films. (More specifically, we derive the image of the jail from various visuals supplied by writings and other media – however, films happen to be one of the dominant sources for this visual.)

A different, but nonetheless very interesting interpretation came from Dr. Hans Varghese Mathews – critic, philosopher of art, and mathematician. He said the jail seemed like something that was built when the industrial revolution just got going. “The space”, he said, smiling, “would make sense in a place like Kolar”. (Kolar is a hundred kilometers east of Bangalore, where a famous gold mine, nearly twenty centuries old, functioned until recently.) Indeed, the jail looked kuccha – raw, bare – and seemed to come out of an age when technology was primitive and crude. Dr. Mathews was only half-quipping when he said the barrack (the dormitory) reminded him “vaguely” of boarding school – “the sleeping arrangements seemed”, he said, “only marginally less comfortable”.

What Dr. Mathews pointed out put the architectural space in perspective – the place looked directly transported from 19th century England, and I imagined Dickens seeing the jail and using its sensibility for his poetic, macabre descriptions. An entire disturbing century had hardly changed the space.

M. K. Raghavendra was completely shaken when he first visited the space. Later in the day, when he recounted his experience to someone, the horror and nausea came back. “The emotions the jail had aroused were indescribable”, he wrote, “but I understood the abandoned space as still retaining evidence of brutality and pain.” The torture chamber, the Quarantine and other spaces reeked with such horror, that when he saw my photographs, three months later, he couldn’t relate to them at all. “I had an inexact understanding of (the jail’s narrative) but it directed my senses to fill the experience with significance that I didn’t find in your pictures.” In other words, the photographs didn’t represent what the space itself had meant to him.

My friends, critics and scholars in their respective fields could, of course, only offer surface interpretations. They were not familiar with the workings of a prison and they had approached the space as outsiders. Jai Iyer saw the jail from the perspective of popular cinema and how this medium informs the middle class. The critic Dr. Mathews looked at the architecture as a whole and metaphorically slotted it in 19th century England. M. K. Raghavendra was perhaps influenced by Irfan, an ex-convict who took him on a tour of the jail. In each case, the interpreter was a distinct outsider to the jail, and each interpretation was colored by a categorical emotion – thrill, fear or deliberate indifference – and that played a part in appraising the space, even though superficially.

My approach was the most superficial of all. I approached the prison-space as a photographer and responded to each mark on the wall, each painting, each cement bed, each Bible, each rangoli,from a poet’s angle. I was interested in surface poetry, and there was little I speculated upon in terms of the lives the prisoners had lived, or the history that had formed and shaped the space.

A deeper interpretation

Dr. Chandra Shekhar Balachandran, a cultural geographer, penetrated the jail from a cultural theorist’s angle. Among my academic associates, he was the only one to do that. First of all, from a cultural geographer’s background he looked at the space as discursive – indeed what else could it be? “It is the discursive element”, he wrote, “that ultimately makes a prison, a prison”. Put simply, mere four walls do not a prison make. But how does the prison become a discursive space? For that matter, how does any space at all, become discursive?

“A house becomes a home”, he wrote, “only when there is a discursive inscription of the languages of kinship, familiality, biological interconnections (real or synthetic), etc. A temple, mosque, church etc. becomes a place of worship only when human beings actually worship there and create the discursive inscription. Likewise, a prison is more than just a structure consisting of walls, doors, locks, cells, chains etc.”

He saw the space as a contestation between the prison establishment and the prisoners. The establishment makes the space punitive, but the prisoners might well seek to make it reparative. In other words the establishment wants to punish or reform, but the prisoners may want to make it homey. Among other inscriptions, he found the marks on the walls as particularly illustrative of this idea.

“On those walls”, he wrote, “we see such a contestation. Their very presence is an assertion of the state’s power to punish (to render justice) those who have been determined to operate outside the laws. The recipient of this punishment is equally at pains to take that very same wall and inscribe on it his/her agenda through the medium of the deity (secular or sacred). The state wants to punish, the individual wants to resist and assert hope.”

This is a detective’s method, as Dr. Balachandran (or none of my other friends) knows for sure what really went on. Indeed, toddling a detective’s path we may guess a few things, reading backward from the “palimpsest of inscriptions” – though to a very limited extent. For example, looking at the stickers and collages of movie stars, Dr. Balachandran concluded that by glorifying the film star, the prisoner perhaps aspired to have a life the star portrayed in a movie/s – “perhaps of a righteous man, wronged, but then vindicated. Perhaps of one who had fallen, but rose again, stepping on his/her former dead selve/s, to a “nobler” life.”

These conjectures at least lead one to wonder what really went on.

The Need for Further Research

My photographs show the prison without prisoners. A vast space of 22 ½ acres, the space seemed to me like a beautiful town rather than a prison. Indeed, the cultural inscriptions in its spaces hold more for the imagination than if prisoners and cops had populated the jail. A mural, a flag painting, a dumbbell, a montage of film stars, a Bible, the gallows, seem to invite the visitor to compose a piece of fiction or a treatise, or perhaps a fictional treatise, than if prisoners and cops had occupied the space.

The empty prison opens up possibilities for several stories without the real storyteller. A storyteller (the prisoner or cop) may make the story real, and perhaps literal, and it’s important that he add something to the narrative in the end. However, the inscriptions and the objects left behind lead one to imagine all sorts of curious tales, which may not have been possible if the jail were functioning.

Some of my acquaintances had visited the jail when it was occupied. They felt very superior about themselves before I opened my box of pictures. They launched into an eloquent speech for ten seconds about all they had seen there. But when the pictures unfolded they were bewildered, as they didn’t recognize a single painting or space except for the central corridor that could not be missed even when the jail was occupied. Besides, the central corridor is shown in popular Kannada movies. Indeed, without prisoners and cops, the spaces in the jail make the jail un-jail-like.

However, the photographs occupy one-half of the narrative. Some sort of verbal narrative that sheds light on the pictures should occupy the other half. But a detailed history of the jail may only disrupt the spirit of the photographs. The history of various governments, various freedom fighters and dissenters, various “criminals”, various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or various missionaries, would put the focus too much on people and offices rather than on the richness of the space itself.

Therefore, it’s more relevant to see how certain prisoners related to the spaces in the jail, to see if they preferred one space to another, to see if they had a comfortable home-like feeling, to see if they felt horrified by the spaces – if they felt horrified by the spaces, to see how they came to grips with the horror – and to see if they came to grips with the horror at all.

The term topophilia was coined by the 20th century British poet John Betjeman. Initially the word referred to a special love for peculiar places, but now refers to a peculiar love for any place. Nostalgia, homesickness, and present or future imaginations for places could give rise to a “topophilic” experience. Cafes, roads, homes, shopping malls, wells, schools, say, when missed in a foreign country, may mark for the individual the topohilia for the home country. In this regard, it would be interesting to see if certain prisoners miss a few spaces from the demolished jail, or if they missed a space within the old jail when they were still there.

The philosopher Alan Watts said, “One may love special places either for their beauty, or for their fascinating ugliness, or for their inability to be described.” Did the prisoners see the jail for its beauty (some places are indeed beautiful), or for its ugliness, or for its horror (as Raghavendra saw it), or for its inability to be described?

Let’s assume the jail is a unique space for a prisoner, at least when he entered it first. Living there perhaps for fifteen years would have dulled his senses, even though sheer boredom might have inspired him to do something to entertain himself. Then how, when he first entered the prison, did he see it? How different was it from other environments he was in before? From the now demolished jail, if there was one space he remembers, what is it?

In one way or other, an individual’s identity is defined by spaces he has access to. This is true of any space – village, city, school, office, park, restaurant or shop. Moving inward into the jail from the city, it would be interesting to see what spaces in the city a prisoner had access to. By the same token, what spaces in the jail do and did he have access to? Was the access involuntary, voluntary or forced? What movement is, or was, denied him in the jail? In other words, how did a prisoner interact with the overall jail space and its many sub-spaces? It would be interesting and important, upon this premise, to comprehend the jail, and the city, from a prisoner’s viewpoint.

Almost all of the paintings are religious. Assuming the prisoners painted the pictures, it does seem evident that the prison establishment ordered those paintings rather than give total freedom to the painters. The painters came from a distinct background of “art” training, and I’m first of all curious to see how they trained and how they landed in the jail as minor or major criminals. Second, what feelings did they have when they painted the pictures? What feelings did they have while painting in what was likely an oppressive environment? What was the choice of pigments and what were their models? It seems almost evident that many used calendar prints as models. Did the painters have an understanding of the stories of each god or goddess, and did they exercise certain choices in interpretation and expression? How did the establishment view the pictures? Did the establishment, along with supplying materials, also supply models for the paintings? Did the establishment also make the subjects for the paintings imperative in some way or other?

A Christ painting lay propped up on the floor of the temple. There were at least two murals depicting various symbols of the three major religions. Under such seemingly harmonious circumstances, was belief on the part of the painter an important criterion for assigning him the job? How did other prisoners relate to the paintings? How did each prisoner relate to his fellow, in moral, religious, and secular terms?

These are only a few of the questions that may throw a strong light on prisoners’ relationships to their spaces.

The jail then becomes a pregnant space, carrying a life that’s been deliberately and even artificially created, a life constantly modeled upon the outside world, and yet, which stands singularly alone, all of a piece. It is this tension between “our” world and the created world that makes the prison-space itself a work of art.

Thank You

I wish to thank all my friends who have spent their time thinking not only about the jail, also about art, literature, architecture, and life in general. I have learnt a lot from them. Specifically, I thank Jai Iyer, Dr. Hans Vargese Mathews, and M. K. Raghavendra. Raghavendra, upon my request, wrote a beautiful essay narrating his experiences and emotions when he first visited the jail.

Dr. Chandra Shekhar Balachandran has been a constant source of inspiration in my post- art college life so far. Without him and his organization The Dharani Trust, photographing the jail would have been next to impossible. I also thank him for writing a brilliant essay on the jail.

A special thanks to Adarsh for helping me procure permission to photograph the jail, and for staying with me until and after the shoot was done.

And finally, I thank my mother, who believed in the project and funded, and continues to fund, my photography.