In an unmissable similarity with the confines of prison cells, the Coronavirus pandemic has locked us all to our respective houses. We are all bound by the revised laws of a pandemic-struck world. Unusual precautions have been written down, definitions of normalcy have been altered, and new offenses and deviations, such as the crime of not wearing face masks and violating lockdown guidelines – crimes no one had even imagined could exist, have been identified.
It was, then, a moment to behold when Sheru, a 40-year-old inmate from Ambala Central Jail of Haryana, took to the medium of radio to reinforce the importance of adhering to Covid-19 norms. Currently serving a 10-year sentence, the inmate-turned-RJ of ‘Ambala Jail Radio’ employed his resilient, melodious vocals to warn the world against any carelessness during the looming pandemic.
Sheru is amongst the 21-odd inmates selected across Tinka Tinka Jail Radio projects in Haryana in December 2020. His passion for music prompted him to give life another chance. His unique compositions and an ear for rhythmic lyrics impelled him on a journey to become one of the most inspiring beacons of light, not just for his fellow inmates and Tinka Radio Jockeys, but for the world at large.
Trained and refined under the vision of the Tinka Tinka Foundation, led by Dr. Vartika Nanda, which aims to reform and reinvigorate India’s prisons, Sheru’s musical journey is inspiring. He began penning down new lyrical melodies almost the moment he was given the chance. With the inauguration of the Ambala Jail Radio on February 26, 2021, Sheru immediately began churning out new songs underlined with socially relevant messages. Perhaps, the four walls of a prison cell open your eyes to new realities of life. It could also be the effects of incarceration, of maintaining miles of distance away from the societal bustle, that propels inmates to visualize the bigger picture and ponder over the evils plaguing our ordinary world.
The final song, written in Punjabi, Sheru’s mother tongue, is a paradigm of everything the Tinka Model of Prison Reforms stands for. The piece encapsulates Sheru’s message to the world on learning to live with the pandemic but also captures his determination to take the world past the tunnel of ignorance in his own measured ways.
When Sheru sings, “Corona tohn darr, bandeya, pata nahi kado kinu lag jaana… munh te mask la le tu nahi taan tu duniya toh jaana…” (Men, fear Corona, who knows when and who catches it… wear a mask on your face or you’ll be forced to leave this world…) his voice reverberates in an all-knowing fervor. Sheru knows what it is like to be separated from the public sphere, from his family, and from a world he knew as his own, with the fateful turn of time. In his pursuit of educating his listeners on COVID-19 appropriate behavior and protocol, Sheru reiterates the many difficulties the world has undergone ever since the dawn of the ‘new normal.
The song, shared by the then Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Dr. Harsh Vardhan on Twitter has been appreciated for bolstering the state-led program of raising public awareness on COVID-19 and prevention measures.
मुंह ते मास्क लगा लै तू,
नहीं ते तू दुनिया तों जाणा …
अंबाला जेल के एक कैदी शेरू ने #COVID19 के प्रति जागरूकता फ़ैलाने के लिए एक पंजाबी गाना बना कर मिसाल कायम की है।
— Dr Harsh Vardhan (@drharshvardhan) May 23, 2021
Released as Episode-16 of Tinka Tinka Prison Radio on platforms like YouTube, Spotify, and Google Podcasts, the song exemplifies the power of music and brings home the indispensable message of vigilance and caution in the face of the pandemic knocking on our doors. The YouTube Channel, Tinka Tinka Prison Reforms, is the only channel in India that solely focuses on prison reforms and brings in authentic voices from prisons in each episode. These are conceptualized, scripted, and directed by Vartika Nanda.
With the potential to serve as a public service announcement, the song inspires the prison community to empower itself with a renewed creative fervor. Jail Superintendent Shri Lakhbir Singh Brar called Sheru’s song a moment of reckoning for its primary audience – the inmates themselves. “Sheru’s passion for music will certainly boost the morale of the rest of the inmates, as Tinka Tinka’s prison radio project grows and enlightens their lives,” said Shri Brar. In this process, Tinka’s Prison Radio and Sheru’s musical message is also spreading its wings amidst the masses who rarely ever look up to legally condemned inmates to impart any socially important lesson.
With now over 47 inmates working as RJs, artists, singers, musicians, and technicians, in 7 operational Tinka Tinka Prison Radio stations across Haryana, it is hoped that the neglected prison community will pioneer new avenues of artistry and betterment. It is certain that with their unique creative talents, RJs like Sheru will soon carve their own places in the hearts of common people. As the inmates embrace the rays of change in jails, it is inevitable that they shall take up the mantle to reform the society for the better, especially in today’s gloomy times when it is these bright sun rays that the world needs the most.
(The author of this article is a final year student of the Department of Journalism, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi.)