September 18, 2014

Tihar Jail – Graffiti and Haat, Delhi

“Subah likhti hun, Shaam likhti hun, 
Is Chardiwari mein baithi, bas tera naam likhti hun 
In faaslon mein jo gam ki judai hai, Usi ko har baar likhti hun 
Ye mere shabd nahin, dil ki aawaz hain, 
Khwaish zinda hai, Sochti hun subah kabhi to hogi hi, Har aas mein jeeti hun 
Haan, Subah likhti hun, Shaam likhti hun, 
Is Chardiwari mein baithi, bas tera naam likhti hun” 

(“I write in the morning, I write in the evening, 
Trapped between these four walls, I just write your name 
I continue to write about the sorrow of separation 
These are not my words, but the anguish of my heart, 
My dreams are still alive, I wait for the dawn and continue to live in hope 
I write in the morning, I write in the evening, 
Sitting in this prison, I just write your name”) 

Chaardiwari - Four Walls

An artistic transformation is in progress at Tihar jail. Asia’s largest prison complex now flaunts the country’s largest mural – spread over 968 meters, it is a blend of exquisite artwork and lyrics of a poem painted in the prominent street art textual style executed by extremely skilled artists. It is no secret that hand painted lettering that is symbolic of the subcontinent’s streetscape and a source of livelihood to thousands of painters and artists is dying a slow death at the hands of cheaper machine-printed vinyl and paper posters and text/art panels – an attempt is being made to jolt the lettering style back to life by the Delhi Street Art festival (“St. Art Delhi”) that is a brainchild of painter-artist Haneef Kureshi and envisages introducing the inhabitants of this antique city to the nuances of graffiti and street art. Hauz Khas and Shahpur Jat villages, the renowned hubs of textile designers and uber-expensive restaurants and bars, already display the handiwork of these talented artists, especially “Daku” (“Bandit”) who has left his mark on numerous walls and flyovers of Delhi through his trademark signature executed in the vernacular – but who would have ever thought that Tihar jail, that continues to remain a symbol of oppressive incarceration and inhumane treatment despite several reforms aimed at improving the social and emotional well being of the inmates besides police sensitization, would one day host this splatter of multi-hued and vibrant colors that are indicative of artistic freedom and imaginative abundance.

Tihar's other side

Nonetheless, to augment the mood within the prison walls and in solidarity with the inmates, the designs are largely subdued and depict numerous symbols reminiscent of the imprisonment of these men and women and the reasons thereof. The poem itself, entitled “Chardiwari” ("Four Walls"), has been composed by Seema Raghuvanshi, an inmate of the jail, and strikes an extremely poignant note, especially when read in Hindi (my English translation is horrible!). While the text follows a largely uniform pattern with the monotony being broken by the use of several different colors and shades ranging from vibrant reds to glittering blues and dazzling yellows, it is the artwork accomplished by the artists from the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh and students of Delhi College of Arts that steals the show with its range of subjects and sketching styles – on a large gray panel is a caricature of a man drowning in a pit of black ink emanating from a pen, perhaps expounding on media trial of the accused and the assumption that a person is guilty before being proved so; another is a tempting collection of three panels painted side-by-side and interspersed by wide white margins depicting three dark angels confined in a space that is too congested for them; a third innovatively utilizes the trunk of a tree growing through the prison wall to depict a cruel, rough face that, in a commentary on the judicial system and law enforcement agencies, holds in its hands a cage and a bird respectively.

Atleast the tree cannot be held by the prison walls - One of my favorite panels

Another art piece, by graffiti artist Yantra, depicts, through a smooth blend of vibrantly colorful swirls and flourishes culminating into several heart shapes nudged in square panels reminiscent of diabolical machineries in cartoon shows, the mentality of a prisoner being transformed by the Tihar jail. Painted, in both Hindi and English, adjacent to one of the entrance/exit gate of the jail is the description – 

“Behind bars, Imprisoned in four walls, 
A set routine to be followed day after day. 
From mechanical conformation 
To a rehabilitated self, This was a jail 
Until it set my heart free.” 

The text is often interspersed by garbled lines looping several times upon themselves and painted in a variety of styles that can be seen so often painted through the city by juvenile graffiti artists. The impressive artwork is definitely worth a stop outside the jail premises, it beckoned me immediately the first time I passed it after it had been completed, yet very few passer-bys and none of the vehicles stop to admire the panels or read the touching words inscribed on the otherwise green-gray monotonous walls and I find it hard to believe that the residents of the city are unable to appreciate the execution of such wonderful artwork by these brilliant artists. 

Some words carried through and others lost in a jumble

I on my part never thought graffiti art could blossom in the country, especially since almost every public surface is considered open space for pasting horrible posters advertising everything from political parties to bakeries – somebody or the other would always cover up a beautiful piece of art with hideous posters (my eyes are on you ABVP and NSUI – shame on you for defacing public infrastructure, this wasn’t expected from students, especially those who claim to be the future of the country). Also graffiti is considered an offence under the West Bengal Prevention of Defacement of Property Act, 1976, which was later extended to other states as well. Section 3(1) of the Act states that whosoever defaces any property in public view by writing or marking with ink, chalk, paint or any other material except for the purpose of indicating the name and address of the owner or occupier of such property, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine which may extend to Rs 50,000, or with both. 

Another particularly scathing commentary - The media and public trials and the assumption of someone being guilty before being proved so.

But before I digress again – a gateway in the kilometer long front face of the prison complex where the graffiti–poetry is inscribed leads to the renowned Tihar Haat, an outlet for everyday FMCG products manufactured in the jail by prisoners. “Most of the prisoners here are victims of outbursts of rage which gripped them unexpectedly and propelled them to commit a crime they didn’t really intend to. Only a very small fraction are hardened criminals” pointed to me the middle-aged soft-spoken man who was running the Haat that day. Though he refused to share his name and the details of the crime he committed, he acknowledged that he was in for life imprisonment and no amount of remorse can alter his past. Delving into his emotions, which weren’t too far from the surface, perhaps owing to lack of people to talk to and his need to share his story, he confided that he misses his family and the prison system is a cruel one where the inmates do not have emotional solace or filial support. Though he didn’t have to live in the prison complex anymore owing to his good behavior and the grant of government accommodation opposite the complex which he shares with other inmates also employed in the Haat, he wasn’t free to do whatever he wanted or roam the city like he used to and it is the luxury of freedom that he missed most. I couldn’t fathom what to say to lessen his grief while he recounted his story but promised that I shall write about the graffiti mural and the Haat. 

Inside Tihar Haat - The furniture and art section

Though photography within the Haat premises is prohibited, I was able to click a few photographs while glancing through the goods shelves – the Haat is divided into several sections – the first one encountered is the pottery section immediately outside the well-ventilated showroom; inside, apart from daily use articles (soaps, oils), food products (pickles, spices, bakery items), jute bags, rugs and incense, the Haat also houses a publication and furniture department – I was introduced to the book “Tinka Tinka Tihar”, a voluminous anthology consisting of poetry and stories penned by the inmates and their photographs, possibly the centerpiece of the Haat given that all copies were wrapped in transparent plastic sheet and displayed prominently on the wall shelves. The furniture, especially the votive alcoves crafted from wood, have been crafted exceptionally skillfully and priced reasonably too. But the most splendid of all the items on sale are the numerous paintings and sketches, created by the inmates as part of psycho-therapeutic sessions, that adorn the entire interior surface of the Haat and mesmerize onlookers with artistic proficiency. Most of the bulkier items however were not for sale since one is required to first place an order for them and, given their worthiness and nominal pricing, they are so much in demand that usually a patron has to wait for a couple of months for delivery. 

Angels, fallen and confined

Apart from the boutique and the FMCG department, the Haat also possesses a small cafeteria and a seating arrangement outside that is enclosed and roofed by fiber glass panels. The inmates, most of them being skilled workers and yet entitled to a meager salary of Rs 74 per day, refuse to be photographed and dejectedly I again feel the terrible pinch of what had just been discussed about guilt and stigma.

"This is not Street Art" (specified near the prison entrance)

Location: Jail Road, near Janakpuri
Nearest Metro Station: Tilak Nagar
Nearest Bus stop: Tihar Jail
How to reach: Buses are available from different parts of the city for Tilak Nagar and Jail Road. One can avail a bus/auto from the Tilak Nagar metro station which is located couple of kilometers from the prison complex.
Open: All days, 10 am - 5 pm
More graffiti abounds here - Pixelated Memories - Hauz Khas complex
Suggested Reading -


  1. Now a days I am in Delhi. During my morning walk I saw all these Graffiti on the walls of Tihar Jail. Really a good sensible job.-NARESH CHANDRA,BARC, MUMBAI

  2. Nice art on Tihar Jail wall. I have seen it.