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Muktoberi, a West Bengal band of prisoners-cum-musicians, is quite a hit.
Gidhari Kumar, a farmer, would sing at kirtan programmes in his village in Purulia district in West Bengal before a conviction brought him to Midnapore jail. Inside the prison, he continued to sing kirtans, thus attracting the attention of other inmates. Kumar's spiritual renditions brought him to the notice of jail authorities and he was selected to become a member of Muktoberi, a band of eight convicts serving life terms from different jails across West Bengal. Kumar now sings spiritual songs for Muktoberi. And his voice features in a recently-released album as well as a hit Bengali film.
Music therapy — where prisoners are taught to make music, and in the process, lead happier lives behind bars — has led to the emergence of "jail bands" across different prisons in India. But Muktoberi, claims the West Bengal correctional homes department, stands out for having performed beyond the prison walls, in several public places, including Rabindra Sadan and Nandan complex in Kolkata. Their debut album, Ore Manush, was released by major music company Saregama Ltd last month; they also sang a number for Bengali film, Mukto Dhara, which is partly based on their lives behind the bars. They've been featured in the film — in a scene where inmates are attending a music therapy class.
The eight lifers, from different prisons — Berhampore jail in Murshidabad, Midnapore jail in West Midnapore, Raiganj jail in North Dinajpur, Dum Dum and Alipore jails in Kolkata — were brought together at the Dum Dum Central Jail in Kolkata two years ago at the behest of Inspector General (West Bengal Correctional Services) Ranveer Kumar, who introduced "culture therapy to boost the spirits of the prisoners as well as enhance their social acceptance". "We found that several inmates would sing, and sing quite well at informal occasions in the jail premises. All they needed was fine tuning, for which renowned Bengali folk singer Tapan Roy was roped in. Roy listened to several inmates, and selected eight who could sing best," he says.