The Padma Shri Awards, the country's fourth-highest civilian award, honours people for their distinguished contributions in various spheres of life, from arts to public affairs. It is given out annually on every Republic Day and puts the spotlight on some of the most remarkable contributions of Indians. Among the people conferred with the award this year was Ajay Kumar Mandavi, a wood artist who transformed the lives of numerous jail inmates.
Rehabilitating Youth From Conflict Zones
Among the three people chosen from the state of Chhattisgarh for the Padma Shri awards this year is Ajay Kumar Mandavi. Familiar to the Kanker jail inmates as "Guruji," Mandavi has been teaching them the art of wooden calligraphy for more than a decade. Among his students, many of them were arrested in cases related to the outlawed Maoist movement. Lessons imparted on wooden art was their way toward reforming their life, and Mandavi was the ray of hope for many.
Making toys out of wood and clay was a childhood interest for Mandavi, which turned him into an artist later in life. The 55-year-old Kanker district native was then one day asked by the district collector to teach wood art to jail inmates in 2010 when the Maoist conflict was at its peak in the district. This request led Mandavi to don the role of a teacher and train several of the victims of Naxalite violence and Maoists who were captured.
Initially, there were a dozen inmates, all of them held for alleged Maoist links, who trained under him. His classes grew from a dozen students, and he became instrumental in motivating many inmates to understand the futility of violence and the need to live fulfilling and peaceful lives. Mandavi says that he never asked the inmates about their past, but they would comfortably share their pain and problems with their Guruji. He would patiently listen to the issues that bothered them, and soon enough, he became a de facto counsellor to them.
Speaking about the experience, Mandavi said, "Gradually, my role became that of a counsellor than just an art trainer. I too started enjoying counselling them." His many interactions with the inmates helped him understand them better and, in turn, help them lead a life away from violence. So far, he has taught around 400 inmates of the Kanker jail, of which 250 were arrested for Naxalite-related incidents. Nearly all of them have walked out of jail after completing their prison terms and are leading decent lives as contributors to society.
Taking Ahead Their Lessons
After their release from prison, many inmates continued practising wooden calligraphy art and also credited the art for helping them be more attentive in various works, including farming. Mandavi claims this to be his biggest-ever achievement to have helped those who once wielded rifles to return to peaceful lives.
A report by NDTV quoted Sanjeet Kumar Yadav, an inmate who learnt wooden calligraphy, saying that his meeting with Mandavi gave him a new purpose in life. Before Mandavi, he never imagined that he would learn an art, and today he wants to take up woodcraft as a profession. After his release, Yadav has been living in Mandavi's house and helping him with the craft.
Under Mandavi's guidance, several former Naxalites have been engaged in the craft and earn revenue through the self-help group 'Shanta Art.' The group, founded by Mandavi in 2015 in the remote village of Bhaisasur, witnesses the heartening sight of several former inmates making intricate nameplates, key rings, pen cases and other items for sale from wood.
Also Read: Pen Mightier Than Rifles! 6 Surrendered Maoists To Prepare For Class 10th Exams In Chhattisgarh