The word ‘prison’ evokes visuals of dark, dreary, and depressive places shut away from the world that most of us would rather not think about.
However, one NGO is working to lift this despair and touch the lives of women prisoners at Mumbai’s Byculla prison. How? They do it by literally adding colour to the inmates’ lives.
AL!VE is an art-based vocational training initiative working with women undertrials at Byculla prison to create unique canvases that are then converted into one-of-a-kind home décor and gift items. The programme, is a part of a larger programme offering counseling, computer literacy, medical, and other support, under the NGO Freedom Foundation banner. At any given point, there are at least 200 inmates from different communities and language groups.
This ongoing project is the collective effort of a few passionate individuals who recognised the need to do something creative and productive to enagage the women prisoners. Aneela Rao, a key volunteer in AL!VE, came up with the idea of coloring as therapy. Over the last six years, the project has gained recognition and is growing in size and popularity. It is amazing to see how simple tools like colouring sheets and colour pencils have gone a long way in helping women prisoners find a creative outlet.
“The idea of using colours was, quite simply, God-inspired” says Renelle Snelleksz, a key volunteer in AL!VE, who has been with the project almost since its inception. She has closely witnessed the way it has impacted the lives of these women, and says that for them it’s more than creativity, it’s a way of healing themselves and spreading joy. Renelle has shared her experience of being with AL!VE, and how it continues to inspire her to do more.
She says, “I quit my full-time job as a TV news anchor and reporter in 2011 as I felt God calling me out of that line of work. But I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me. It was a leap of faith. But shortly into my sabbatical, I got involved with AL!VE and realised that my childhood passion for art, craft, and creativity had come alive as I volunteered on this project. To see the joy, hope, and happiness that it spreads in prison is the kind of fulfillment that makes my life so much more meaningful. I wouldn’t trade this for anything”.
The testimonies of these women in prison are the biggest encouragement for the volunteers. When they visit the prison every fortnight to distribute sheets for colouring, the ladies run to them and huddle around them shouting “Paperwaali aa gayi” (The woman with the colouring paper is here).
A former inmate at the prison says, “There are many things that I have engaged with while in prison, but it was colouring that brought a smile to my face, and peace to my heart, mind, and soul… It was a great feeling, which cannot ever be expressed. It still brings a smile to my face. This made me feel that it was not over for me, and that I could still do all that I did when I was in the free world.”
What does AL!VE do with these colours?
The sheets coloured by the inmates are used to create unique products and collectibles. They started with simple laminated table mats, but now the range has expanded to include home décor and gift items including table lamps, serving trays, multi-purpose boxes, wall hangers, photo frames, earring stands, stationary, eco-friendly gift bags, and paper gift bags, among other products.
What makes their products so unique?
The USP for AL!VE is that each product is unique, because each sheet is coloured differently.
“We don’t mass produce or screen print the artwork, so no two products ever look the same,” says Renelle.
How are they priced?
Since this wasn’t intended to be a business venture, there has been a conscious effort to keep product prices affordable. The idea is to encourage anyone who would like to support this project to be able to buy something from AL!VE. On average, the prices range from Rs 20 to Rs 700. However, some premium items like table lamps range between Rs 1,800 to Rs 2,000.
“Our endeavor is to reach out to more people and get them involved in the wonderful work that the ladies are doing in prison,” she says.
Have there been any roadblocks?
Walking a road that no one has walked before has been a learning curve for the AL!VE team. Besides that, when it came to making it commercially viable, there were significant marketing challenges for a small-scale project like this.
“Since the project was never set up as something planned, there was no model for us to follow. We were learning as we went along, and had to adapt quickly to its success by making products and finding ways to sustain the ever-increasing number of participants in the project,” says Renelle.
They have recently partnered with Sellfie, which has helped them take this initiative to the next level by giving them access to online retail and social media. Sellfie is an app that allows sellers to sell their products and collect payments securely across all social channels like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter. Sellfie is a new product of Citrus Payment Solutions - a leading payment gateway company in India.
The team believes that they discovered Sellfie just in time, as an answer to their prayers. Their products are now available online, and available to customers across the country as Sellfie offers shipping support.
In addition, the Sellfie feature ‘Collect Payments’ has enabled them to accept payments at exhibitions via credit and debit cards and mobile banking options. This helps sales significantly as a lot of people don’t carry cash these days.
“In this digital age, we are grateful for the positive impact that great partnerships like these can facilitate. We are super excited to see AL!VE expand its reach through Sellfie” - Renelle Snelleksz
It is encouraging to see that coloring is a cathartic experience for the inmates, who are excited to create products that are unique and beautiful. AL!VE continues to get support and encouragement from the prison authorities as they closely witness the positive impact that this project is having on the lives of the women inmates!
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