"I had every reason to hate my existence but this art school has put my heart at ease and made me more tolerant."
By Ahmer Qureshi
At the Karachi Central Jail, the presence of an art school has done more than just imparting artistic knowledge; it has changed perspectives, defied odds and more than anything, provided solace to the incarcerated.
“The real truth is people usually become bigger criminals after coming to jail. With me, it was different; I had every reason to hate my existence but this art school has put my heart at ease and made me more tolerant,” said Kazim Raza Shah, a 48-year-old veteran student of the Fine Arts School.
Kazim is serving a 25-year term in a narcotics related offence. He has been with the school since the very first day and has now been given the position of a trainer for new students. Kazim, like many other prisoners studying at the art school, had never picked up a pencil to draw anything in his life.
Now several of his paintings have been exhibited in over eight large-scale exhibitions in places such as Alliance Francaise and Sadequain Art Gallery.
He has also earned quite a sum from selling his paintings and even won a third prize in an art competition held by the Anti-Narcotics Force.
"In the art school we learn to channel negativity into something positive. I have no anger against the system now, and every day I strive to learn something new,” said Raza.
Nusrat Mangan, Sindh Inspector General Prison, started this project in May 2007 without help from the government. It has now grown into a full-fledged department with an air-conditioned facility where the students learn all forms of artwork including painting, sculpting and relief work.
“Art is a form of self-expression; it allows the prisoners to escape from their present realities to a world where they can be themselves,” said Mangan.
Aziz Akbar Bugti, 35, who has been part of the school since the past four years has felt his life has greatly changed after being enrolled in the art school. “I was a vengeful person, I had a lot of hate inside me for people and I did not even consider myself Pakistani for some time, but now I feel part of the system more than ever.”
Aziz hails from the area of Dera Bugti in Balochistan and is serving a sentence for planning and planting explosives and was arrested during the era of former president Pervez Musharraf.
Behind the finesse, skill and rehabilitation of the inmates is the artistic expertise of Sikandar Jogi who was hired as the teacher for these students when the project started in 2007. He shared that he had initially felt hesitant and a little fearful towards the idea of teaching in a prison.
"Like many other people in our society, I had a very stereotypical view about the prison life. I used to think that I will never fit in with these people, but after spending years teaching them, I have learned that they are not different from us.”
While most of the inmates did not have any prior knowledge about art, Hasnain Raza stands out from the rest.
Hasnain, 35, is in jail for kidnapping for ransom which he claimed was a false accusation. Before being imprisoned, he had a full-time job as a graphic artist and this expertise has made him a valuable member of the school.
“My case was complicated and for a long time I was under extreme stress; at times I felt like I was completely lost. Art is what helped me cope.”
Like other inmates, his work has been exhibited and he is currently in the process of designing a book for the art school in which the most prominent artwork done by the students will be documented. “Everything here is done manually. We have a computer but not everyone can use it. It was a new experience for me and it has allowed me to grow as a person.”
Hasnain believes these steps are being taken to change the way the world thinks about prisoners. "Whenever someone is sent to jail, they are not sent to be rehabilitated but because people want to be far away from them.”
Many prisoners have pursued art as their career after being released. Examples include Ziaullah Khan who after his release from prison is in the pursuit of opening an art school for the less privileged in Karachi's Baldia Town.
“We are all from the same family here; the family of art. We do not discriminate here on the basis of caste or creed as those are the real reasons for the disunity in our country. We have created too many divisions,” said Kazim Raza, who believes all crimes are a result of the society’s failure to inculcate art education into the national curriculum.
According to Nusrat Mangan, the success of this fine art program at the Central Jail has allowed him to expand it to other prisons as well, which includes the Landhi jail in Malir district, the women’s jail and also the juvenile prison. But many challenges stand in the way of expansion including the high cost of art equipment in Pakistan.
Simply put, this institute is a beautiful example of how a little effort for the well-being and rehabilitation of prisoners can go a long way.
This photoessay is done by SZABIST Karachi's Principles of Journalism students working on a project called "Covering Kolachi" which focuses on Karachi-based stories.