Freedom Manchaha — a collection of rugs woven by jail inmates — celebrates the power of expression in all of us
The smiles on their faces mirror an unadulterated joy. The happiness of ‘expression of my heart’ and freedom to dream. Once again. The pictures of the inmates of the Jaipur, Bikaner and Dausa jails with their Freedom Manchaha rugs is heart-warming.
‘Manchaha’ is a ‘sustainable development initiative’ conceptualised by Kavita Chaudhary, design director, Jaipur Rugs, which sees weavers weave designs after their heart. Kavita, who studied textile design from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, took it to the jail inmates, the idea of inclusivity and shattering judgement to the core. She tells t2 about the making of the collection.
Freedom Manchaha looks amazing. How did the idea strike you?
The idea was to provide livelihood opportunities that disassociate inmates from negative emotions of guilt and shame and bring back dignity, creativity and healing into their lives. For Jaipur Rugs it was a way to create purposeful and original works of art for the conscious design fraternity, all the while bringing awareness that beauty can manifest from a place as dark as a prison.
How many inmates have worked on the collection?
Hundred-plus inmates worked on this collection.
Tell us all about the collection…
Freedom Manchaha is a sustainable initiative where long-term prisoners of Jaipur Central Jail, Bikaner Central Jail and Special Central Jail Shyalawas, Dausa, get to design their own rugs spontaneously on the loom. A section of society set up for failure are transformed through income and self-expression to heal and spark change in their lives. Each rug in the collection is a masterpiece of design inspiration and is made of 222,184 individual knots in every square metre using hand-spun leftover yarn in carpet production, which cannot be used afresh.
This reduces industry-wide wastage that had previously no solution. It makes the colour palette as unique as the design. It enables sustainable production — reusing and revival from waste, the problem becoming its own solution.
What kind of stories did you see emerge from the rugs?
As several inmates worked together on the same carpet, their contrasting personalities are reflected in the design, giving birth to a new visual language. Designs are imbued with the stories of their past, present and future. The inmates have woven things like mobile towers, kites, birds and houses on the carpets that represent their most intimate desires to be closer to their loved ones.
Instead of making prisons into commercial carpet production centres and rendering inmates into wage labourers, we chose to create unique works of art by nurturing latent creativity by turning inmates of varying backgrounds into artists.
What touched us most were the smiles on those faces. What kind of joy did you perceive in the inmates while they worked on the pieces?
Through the Freedom Manchaha initiative, we turn disengaged inmates who were counting down days into a creative powerhouse making one-of-a-kind handmade works of art using leftover yarn from commercial carpet production. The satisfaction of doing something purposeful was evident on their faces. The recognition and compensation for their work once again made them feel like a contributing part of the larger society.
What kind of freedom of expression did you see in Freedom Manchaha?
We were quite blown away by the simplicity of expression in Freedom Manchaha. Inmates wove kites to portray freedom, they made mobile phone towers to portray how deeply they wish to connect back with loved one and wove flowers and birds, representing peace and joy. Some wove symbols from their bare minimal prison life like table, glass and pots of water. Some brought to life memories of their past like guns and knives.
We could see how the weavers were playfully exploring their canvas — picking their favourite colours. In the beginning they were timid and uncertain weaving delicate lines intricately. Gradually as they became more confident and opened their mind to new ideas, their personalities started showing through the art of weaving. With each passing day they became braver and bolder, expressing themselves like some famous artist. Their thoughts became more original by the day and expression more unhindered.
Do you think art or the practice of it is total liberation?
The practice of art is definitely total liberation. The degree of expression depends more on how open our spirit is to express. Art itself has no barrier, though an artist can block their own potential.
What was your biggest takeaway from this project?
I am humbly touched by how the inmates have embraced the art of weaving and opened up to creating their own art. On the other side, the clients have accepted the works of inmates with open arms. What I learnt is that love and care and joy connect us all. Beauty resides in each one of us no matter what our past and future holds.
What is your personal take on the definition of freedom?
Freedom is the acceptance of joy and hurt. It is the acceptance of our past and of our imperfections. Accepting who we are, just the way we are is freedom.
What is the one freedom you are really asking for this Independence Day?
I wish for all of us the freedom from guilt and regret. These emotions take us backwards in our journey of self-appreciation. We can never be perfect and therefore these expressions do not need to exist in anyway, if we really think about it.