Strutting across the stage wearing red stilettos, red lipstick and a flower in her hat, Samara Chopra was always going to be a hit with the inmates of Tihar high-security jail in New Delhi.
The audience of about 1,000 male prisoners whooped with delight as Chopra, lead singer of the Ska Vengers, ran through a high-energy one-hour set at an afternoon concert inside the prison grounds.
Clapping her hands high in the air, and belting out ska, reggae and soul classics, she soon had the prison guards as well as the captive audience moving to the music.
The event was an unusual break from the daily routine at Tihar jail, a vast complex in the west of the Indian capital where 12,000 inmates ranging from trial suspects to convicted murderers are incarcerated.
“Music is a force for good,” Chopra, 28, said during a warm-up act by prison band The Flying Souls.
“It has the power to change people and is fundamental to all lives, including those inside prisons,” she said. “The interaction we have had with the people here has been great and I want to come back and teach here.”
The Ska Vengers, a popular Delhi band, have developed links with “Jail 4” at Tihar, and they held the gig to celebrate arranging for 300,000 rupees (US$5,700) of music equipment to be donated to the prison by a music store.
“Jail 4,” one of 10 separate facilities within the prison, houses 1,615 inmates including 160 foreigners and 230 convicted murderers, four of whom are on death row, according to an official register at the entrance gate.
One of the convicted murderers, Ashish Nandwana, 26, from Jaipur, was among the raucous concert crowd gathered in the prison gardens.
He is serving a life sentence for stabbing a trainee flight attendant to death in a Delhi guesthouse in April 2008 after she refused to marry him.
“It is good to have music here. The prison is ok but we want to have events like this,” he said before the concert.
Such grim personal stories seem at odds with the cheerful atmosphere at the concert, which was attended by guest of honor Neeraj Kumar, the director general of Delhi prisons and a keen advocate of music for inmates.
“We have been introducing music rooms and we are very happy to say that the response has been tremendous,” he said. “It is therapeutic.”
Kumar said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the depth of talent among prisoners and that he had recently started a “Tihar Idol” competition to select inmates who will make a commercially produced album.
The idea of providing Tihar with better music facilities came from Stefan Kaye, the London-born keyboard player of the Ska Vengers who found very little equipment on offer when he held music workshops in the jail late last year.