FashionIn Tihar jail, inmates are learning fashion design to...

In Tihar jail, inmates are learning fashion design to build a new future

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Women prisoners of Sub Jail No.6 are using design as a language of freedom and confidence



“What do you think of my dress?” M asks as she enters the Design Lab in one of South Asia’s largest prison complexes, Tihar Prisons, in west Delhi.

The lab is essentially a classroom with about 20 electric sewing machines, where all the inmates of Tihar Sub Jail No.6—meant for women—can enrol for a free, three-month fashion design course offered by the Delhi-based Pearl Academy. They can learn embroidery, stitching and study how to design garments, bags and other accessories. M is one of the 35-odd students “graduating” on the day I visit.

“This is my design. Can you believe I had never picked up a needle in my life before this course?” M, in her 50s, says, twirling to offer a view of her batik-printed co-ord set. It matches her pale pink lipstick, which she has also used as a cheek tint, and the rubber band holding her hair up in a bun. The top, though, has an oddly placed blue flower embroidered on one shoulder. I find the same motif in her other creations, bags and scarves, as well. “Blue was my (late) husband’s favourite colour. It’s only when I am here (inside the lab) that I forget about that one moment of rage that changed my life,” says M, who was jailed 18 months ago for allegedly murdering her husband.

P shows off her red and yellow printed Anarkali suit. Z has a bag with a feather- stitch pattern that depicts the roses in her garden at home. A’s handkerchief has chain-stitch embroidery that faintly resembles the faces of her two children, who are now teenagers. Each design has a unique story to tell.

For the women, the course, first started in 2017, offers escape and confidence: “It allows me to forget why I am here”; “it’s the only time when I am happy”; “it gives me confidence that I can make something out of my life once I step out of here”; “it’s the only time I am not crying”.

They can sell their clothes and accessories to other inmates during a weekly market organised within the premises (the inmates earn monthly wages from the jail authorities for duties like cooking and cleaning). The product prices, decided by jail authorities, range from 150-1,200, depending on the item. The money earned goes to the designer. They seem to earn around 500 a month on average.

Once they leave prison, they can approach the academy for help in getting a job or set up their own tailoring business. The academy says it has helped, for instance, one woman get a job with a fashion studio in Delhi. So far, over 160 Sub Jail No.6 inmates have received certificates of completion from the academy; the lab was shut in 2021-22. M’s is the first batch to finish the course post covid-19.

After serving a four-year jail term in a murder case, S now runs a tailoring business from her south Delhi home, making clothes for family and friends. Since she started two years ago, she has been earning around 15,000 a month. “I have one machine and about 10 clients. I am very happy; never ever in my dreams did I imagine that I could be independent,” says S, who watches YouTube videos for design inspiration.

Two academy instructors—whose names, like those of the inmates, can’t be dis- closed—teach everything, from the different kinds of stitches to how to dye shibori textiles and cut cloth for a palazzo or an off-shoulder dress. Classes are held Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm.

This initiative started under our Here for Good” campaign, says A.Maurizio Grioli, the dean of Pearl Academy. “Fashion is a very fascinating world… it allows people to dream, probably that’s why people are interested in the course so much.”

The inmates’ creations are displayed on mannequins across the Design Lab: dresses, gowns, salwar-kameez, even a corset top. “We introduced more Western designs once we had international inmates,” says one of the teachers, referring to prison- ers of African descent.

Each machine has been redesigned in such a way that it can’t be used as a weapon. “Till date, there’s been no accident or any instance that would make us think twice about running this programme,” says Pearl Academy professor Bela Gupta. “Each year, we are seeing a good number of around 30 women enrolling for the course. What makes this course work is the play with colours and threads. It gives them a chance to dance with their thoughts while being confined and away from their family, especially kids.”

Several studies confirm that a creative activity can boost mood and well-being, more so in a confined environment. At Tihar, a non-profit also offers to teach beauty parlour skills but the 35 women I met preferred stitching since it doesn’t need much investment to start a tailoring business when they leave the jail.

“This is a skill-building exercise to help the inmates become more entrepreneurial,” says Gupta, adding that they plan to scale the project to other jails soon.

When M was called on stage to receive her certificate, she said, “When I stitch, I am not just working towards making a pretty kurta or a shirt. I am also mending my heart…telling it that it’s okay to dream of a better life.”

 

 

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