Rais­ing The Bar


De­signer Ab­hishek Dutta is the first ever de­signer to work with pris­on­ers—he trained them and they are now cre­at­ing ap­parel and ac­ces­sories for his la­bel

De­sign­er­wear worn by the stylish and elite be­ing crafted in­side a jail? That too made by the pris­on­ers, some of whom are lif­ers? Sounds crazy, but it is true. This en­tire ven­ture is the brain­child of Arun Ku­mar Gupta, DG and IG, Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices, West Ben­gal. When he brought the proposal to Ab­hishek Dutta, the lat­ter was ini­tially scep­ti­cal. “I had never been in­side a jail be­fore.” How­ever, Ab­hishek is glad that he took up the chal­lenge which has been an eye-opener and a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for him as well. Since the past three months, Ab­hishek Dutta and his team have been train­ing 40 in­mates of Kolkata’s Pres­i­dency Cor­rec­tional Home in the fine nu­ances of fash­ion de­sign, trendy cuts, im­pec­ca­ble fin­ishes in gar­ments, em­broi­dery and em­bel­lish­ments. The process is still on. The ef­forts of these 40 men were re­cently show­cased in a gala fash­ion show where Kolkata’s glit­terati and cul­tur­atti strut­ted the ramp in Ab­hishek Dutta col­lec­tion which had been cre­ated solely by the pris­on­ers! Film stars, artists, mu­si­cians, sports stars, film di­rec­tors, so­cialites...it was be­yond the dream of these in­mates to see an ar­ray of Kolkata celebri­ties up close. Crick­eter Manoj Tiwari, ac­tors Paoli Dam, Swastika Mukherji, Koni­neeca, So­hom, Gau­rav and Rid­dhima, per­cus­sion­ist Bick­ram Ghosh and his wife ac­tor Jaya Seal Ghosh, danseuse Alokananda Roy, artist Su­vapras­sanna, and di­rec­tor Anirud­dha Roy Chowd­hury were among the celebrity mod­els. As they sashayed the ramp wear­ing out­fits painstak­ingly made by them, it was a great morale booster for the pris­on­ers. The celebs them­selves were very happy to be a part of the event. Says ac­tor Paoli Dam, “I am ex­tremely de­lighted to par­tic­i­pate in the fash­ion show or­gan­ised by the West Ben­gal Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices and Ab­hishek Dutta. It is a brilliant ini­tia­tive. The fi­nesse in gar­ment mak­ing which the in­mates are ac­quir­ing will help them take this as a pro­fes­sion once they are out of the cor­rec­tional home and even­tu­ally help to bring them back to a nor­mal reg­u­lar life.

Fail­ure is the pil­lar of suc­cess only if one learns from mis­takes. Each per­son de­serves one more chance. All my best wishes for them. Let’s cel­e­brate life!” For ac­tor Nigel Akkara, who has been an ex-in­mate him­self and is now a poster boy of prison re­forms, it was an emo­tional mo­ment walk­ing the ramp. Nigel is pas­sion­ately in­volved in the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of ex-pris­on­ers since the past seven years. “My hearti­est congratulations and best wishes to Ab­hishek. The pris­on­ers are not only get­ting a proper vo­ca­tional train­ing, but there is also a guar­an­tee of em­ploy­ment once they come out of prison which is very im­por­tant for them to lead a nor­mal life once they are back in the main­stream. I salute the cause.” Ab­hishek Dutta has helped set up a man­u­fac­tur­ing unit in­side Pres­i­dency Cor­rec­tional Home, com­plete with 30 sta­teof-the-art sewing ma­chines. This aims to pro­vide them with train­ing and help them earn. The out­fits are sold in West Ben­gal govern­ment show­rooms Tan­tuja and Biswa Bangla. The de­signer has tie-ups with both Tan­tuja and Biswa Bangla and the gar­ments man­u­fac­tured in jail will be a part of Ab­hishek Dutta’s pret col­lec­tion. Tan­tuja has an ex­clu­sive Balu­chori show­room ded­i­cated to the rich bro­cade of Ben­gal, and Ab­hishek says that it also re­tails many of the dressy Balu­chori out­fits made by the in­mates. Of the 40 pris­on­ers who are a part of this train­ing, seven had var­ied kinds of tai­lor­ing ex­pe­ri­ences—they worked as tai­lors be­fore land­ing up in jail. Some worked as master tai­lors, some made men’s shirts and trousers and oth­ers were into tai­lor­ing women’s ready made kur­tas and sal­war kameez sets, and some had ex­pe­ri­ence in em­broi­dery. For them, it was eas­ier to pick up the skills, and they, in turn, helped the new­bies learn the ropes. Arun Ku­mar Gupta says, “We had a tai­lor­ing unit ear­lier. Those work­ing here made the uni­forms worn by in­mates and khaki uni­forms worn by the prison em­ploy­ees. We also had a tie-up with the Assem­bly of God Church School whereby the school uni­forms were made in the tai­lor­ing unit of Pres­i­dency Jail. They also did some zari em­broi­dery for an NGO as­so­ci­ated with Carmel Con­vent School. I have two vi­tal re­sources at my dis­posal—am­ple space and man­power. I felt the space we had could be used very pro­duc­tively and I had the ad­van­tage of man­power who would not bunk and scoot off on long leaves. Though they did tai­lor­ing work in the unit, I was

keen that they en­hance their skills. For a long time, I was toy­ing with the idea of in­volv­ing a re­puted de­signer in the process. Ab­hishek has worked ex­tremely hard and is still at it.”

Mean­while, Ab­hishek ad­mits that it was ini­tially a tall task to mo­ti­vate his jail ‘stu­dents’. “Mo­ti­va­tion is a con­tin­u­ous process. In jail, a pris­oner knows that he would have to be in­side till he serves his sen­tence. So, he is re­signed to his fate. In­side, his ba­sic needs are looked af­ter. They don’t need to work hard for a liv­ing in­side the jail. So, mo­ti­vat­ing them is even more dif­fi­cult than ac­tu­ally train­ing them. Though a few of them had been tai­lors and knew the ba­sics of cut­ting and stitch­ing, cre­at­ing de­sign­er­wear re­quires far more skill and ex­per­tise. They had to learn to work on the mod­ern high­speed ma­chines. De­signer wear re­quires fi­nesse and at­ten­tion to de­tail. My team and I in­vested a lot of time, en­ergy and pa­tience in teach­ing these men the skills of stitch­ing, fin­ish­ing, cut­ting, pat­tern and em­broi­dery.” Ab­hishek re­veals that such is the stigma as­so­ci­ated with jail that ini­tially it was tough for him to con­vince his staff and in­terns to be a part of the train­ing team in the Pres­i­dency Cor­rec­tional Home. “A cou­ple of my fe­male in­terns got cold feet and al­most fled. But now, some fe­male staff mem­bers of my team go to Pres­i­dency Jail reg­u­larly to train the male pris­on­ers who are very re­spect­ful to these young women.” Barun Ku­mar Mon­dal of Howrah district has been in Pres­i­dency Jail since 2004. “I was al­ways a part of the tai­lor­ing unit of this cor­rec­tional home since I came here, as I was a tai­lor by pro­fes­sion ear­lier. I am de­lighted to work with fash­ion de­signer Ab­hishek Dutta and this work re­ally in­ter­ests me.” Az­izul used to be a zari worker be­fore and he has been in jail since the last 14 years. I am en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing with a fash­ion de­signer. “When I am out of jail, I wish to go back to Mum­bai. I used to be a zari worker in a gar­ment fac­tory in Malad. This train­ing will help me cre­ate more beau­ti­ful work.” Sheikh Naz­imul used to make women’s gar­ments like sal­war kameez and churi­daar be­fore. “I am re­ally lov­ing this op­por­tu­nity to learn new cuts and de­signs,” he ad­mits. Ab­hishek Dutta says that these pris­on­ers are now be­ing trained to make ready to wear gar­ments for his prêt col­lec­tion.

They are mak­ing eas­ier to make gar­ments like kur­tas, palaz­zos, dhoti pants, Nehru jack­ets, and lehen­gas with lighter em­broi­dery work. Ab­hishek is also train­ing them in ac­ces­sories—they are do­ing sam­plings of shoes and bags. To mo­ti­vate his ‘stu­dents’, Ab­hishek in­cen­tivises the ses­sions. “I gift them food coupons if they per­form well.” With these coupons, they can treat them­selves with good­ies of their choice from the prison can­teen. He also, at times, gives them cash in­cen­tives which they can send to their homes. Ab­hishek says he has made an open of­fer to all his jail stu­dents of a job in his pro­duc­tion unit when they are re­leased. In fact, at the end of the fash­ion show with Kolkata’s celebs, Ab­hishek had given cash re­wards to the best per­form­ers. Each of these re­wards was pre­sented to them by a celebrity, which made them feel very spe­cial.

Re­cently, Bol­ly­wood ac­tor Nawazud­din Sid­diqui was in Kolkata for the pro­mo­tion of his film Babu­moshai Ban­dook­baaz. Nawazud­din, who plays a bad­die con­tract killer in the film, met the in­mates, who stitched a Nehru jacket es­pe­cially for him. Nawazud­din had a mo­ti­va­tional chat with the pris­on­ers, shar­ing with them de­tails of his own hum­ble back­ground, his strug­gles and his bat­tle with ad­ver­si­ties. Nawazud­din was im­pressed by their ef­forts and skills. Arun Ku­mar Gupta is happy with the skill upgra­da­tion in the tai­lor­ing unit just as he had en­vi­sioned. He is pleased with the pos­i­tive change it has brought to their be­hav­iour and out­look. “They have be­come pos­i­tive, con­fi­dent, well-be­haved and dis­ci­plined.” Or­gan­is­ing a sim­i­lar train­ing pro­gramme for the women in­mates of the jail is also on the anvil. There are also plans of di­ver­si­fy­ing to other cor­rec­tional homes of Ben­gal. Right now, Ab­hishek Dutta and Arun Ku­mar Gupta are work­ing out the lo­gis­tics of par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Pris­oner’s Fes­ti­val in Ti­har. Ti­har Jail au­thor­i­ties, im­pressed by their ef­fort, have in­vited them to have a fash­ion show there. The bud­ding fash­ion de­sign trainees of Kolkata’s Pres­i­dency Cor­rec­tional Home would then have to ready their col­lec­tion and prob­a­bly travel all the way to Ti­har to show­case their ta­lent. In­deed, en­deav­ours like these in cor­rec­tional homes will bring about ‘cor­rec­tion’ in the real sense. A stitch in time, saves nine, they say. Here, it is set to save and re­form many lives…

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