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…