October 6 : Hulagappa Kattimane directs plays written by the world-famous English playwright, William Shakespeare. Macbeth and Hamlet are two plays that he staged recently in the South Indian cities of Bellary and Mysore. Both were astounding successes.

There’s nothing unusual in any of this except for one thing – his actors are all prison inmates.

Hulagappa is on a mission to reform criminals and help them cope with their sentences by introducing them to Shakespeare and the art of theatre.

“I generally choose Shakespeare because he deals with human emotions like compassion, mercy, love, violence and hatred which would give a chance to the prisoners to feel, think and redeem themselves.

Shakespeare in Prison
Shakespeare in Prison [Illustration by Anup Singh]
It also provides spectators a chance to view the prisoners differently”, he says in a report that appeared in ‘The Hindu’ newspaper.

A very important reason why Hulagappa chooses Shakespeare and classic novels like Theodor Dostevyesky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ is because these novels enable the prisoners to think or reflect on their acts and repent.

All of these works deal with the aftermath of committing a crime, the guilt that arises as a result and the consequences of the crime. In each of the works, the sinner or criminal has ultimately to accept responsibility for his actions.

With his prisoner-students, Hulagappa shares more than just a passion for theatre. He also shares their background. Like many of them, Hulagappa too was born into an agricultural family in Bellary district in Karnataka. He was far more interested in watching the yearly dance and theatre festivals held in his town, than in agricultural pursuits. This young man, who wanted to become an actor, learnt all the facets of acting when he grew up.

One important facet of acting involves observing people from different walks of life in different situations. It was to observe how people cope in jail that Hulagappa went for a visit to Bellary prison. The visit was to change his life.

Why not have the prisoners stage a play, he thought. And he promptly went about organizing one. His first play, ‘Hamlet’, was staged in 1998, with the prisoners of Bellary prison. The second, ‘Macbeth’ was staged in 1999, with Mysore jail prisoners.

Besides making money, both plays – which were staged in Bangalore – also attracted the attention of the government and the public. There’s been no looking back for Hulagappa since then.

Hulagappa teaches his students every aspect of the craft of theatre, not just acting. They paint the sets, make the masks, sharpen the spears, fix the props, construct the stage, do everything in fact. Many of the prisoners with whom he worked in the beginning, and who are free today, have taken to script-writing and theatre.

Through theatre, Hulagappa has brought about a great change not only in their way of life but he has also tapped an innate talent within each of them. He has formed a group, ‘Sankalpa’, with his wife as director, and the prisoners as members. His ambition is to reach the prisoners of Tihar jail.

Enacting the plays has done wonders to the personalities of the prisoners. They’ve been transformed from criminals to thinkers. Instead of unquestioningly accepting their lot, the prisoners have learnt to question the system of crime and punishment that isolates them from society for a long period. They’ve learnt to be human again.