When old friends of 30 years plus get together, primarily to recollect with nostalgia the years spent in the NCC, talks are wide ranging, covering every subject under the sun. So, it was not unexpected that we wandered onto the subject of places where people don’t get much of the sun (read cheer), and that led the three of us to knock on the forbidding gates of Puzhal Prison to bring some cheer into prison routine.
The good intentions almost vaporised with the tedious process of verification of antecedents by the police – who seemed puzzled as to why anyone would like to undertake the long journey and sing for prisoners. Not many would really understand, except for those who have an abundance of energy, an Akshaya paatram of cheerfulness and some time to spare.
Of course, the singing talent of my friend Unni Nair is legendary (if I write a book on him , I will add that he used to sing so well that as a fighter pilot, the other pilots in his squadron would switch off their engines to hear him sing over the radio, high in the heavens – now that I hope gives you an idea of Unnis powerful voice!)
My other friend Shylaja, is a consistent explorer and fascinated by fancies, fallacies and follies of mankind – and so the Thaare zameen purr made it a point not to miss the program too.
Thus it was that the Sunday afternoon found us trooping into Puzhal Prison, wondering what kind of a reception we would get. But we were pleasantly surprised to see that the prison authorities had in fact taken meticulous care to make arrangements for the music program.
Once the prisoners had settled down, a short introduction followed, in which I tried to greet every one in Senthamizh – and failed miserably; that, expectedly, broke the ice however, with the crowd more at ease, loosening up and beginning to smile, especially when I confessed that I could not sing or dance, but was great at clapping!
Then Unni took over and the first song was “adho ande paravai Pola vazha vendum,” superbly rendered! And as if on cue, when it came to the lalalaaaa part, virtually every one joined in – full-throated. Who can resist the image of MGR singing about freedom and independence under blue skies? None!
The inmates were now in an interactive mood and belted out requests for songs from all languages – which Unni did his best to fulfill. Then there came the masterstroke: “Isn’t there anyone who can be my singing partner?” he asked. And sure enough, a few hands went up to the sound of thunderous applause!
Now, the programme changed course, with one after another from among the inmates taking the microphone and belting out old favourites. We could see the happiness in the singers’ faces when they returned to their seats and everyone shook hands and patted them on their backs.
The inmates clamoured for a song from the well-known lead actress of the popular Tamil TV serial “Rudra Veenai,” also famous for her role in Eyandran, along with the great Rajini; so it was now Shylaja s turn to sing another popular favourite to a fully charged-up and appreciative audience.
The hour which we had been allotted stretched to two. The atmosphere was charged and heady, as in any normal over-crowded music show. Signals from the authorities indicated that it was time for us to wind up and reluctantly, we did. The warmth of fellowship of the inmates was touching and the invitation of the authorities to visit again was sincere. The idea was to have all prison inmates (over 2000) attend the show in the open air auditorium. We readily accepted. We are now looking forward in the hope of another slot for us to perform on the night of December 31st.
We left with a warm feeling of having connected strongly with the inmates. We went to spread joy and cheer – as happiness chefs – and left with the feeling that the musical brew based on the philosophy “Brick walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage” was well appreciated.
In conclusion, I must add that the friendly yet respectful relationship between the inmates and the prison officials was good to see. There was hope in the air and smiles on faces, which had been dull earlier. Many of them came up to us to thank us and asked us to return for another programme. As one man said, “Sir, you have made me forget where I am!”
That was the whole idea, after all!