Art Behind Bars

“As an artist, I achieved dual satisfaction by spreading the wings of inspiration and optimism among the prisoners – and to an extent put art – colours and creativity – on the map of an untrodden territory,” introduces Noida-based artist ‘nishu’ Natasha Chadha Bhambri. Under her Art Connect and the India Vision Foundation initiative, she has put her stamp of transformation in seven prisons across Delhi, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh.

In 2014, ‘nishu’ met her “childhood role model, Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient Dr. Kiran Bedi. The first female Indian Police Service officer, now retired, social activist, and current Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry, helms two NGOs. India Vision Foundation (IVF), since its inception in 1994, works with inmates and their families to ‘Save the Next Victim’ via Prison Reforms. The second, Navjyoti India Foundation (1988), services underserved communities. 

“My niece, Tarunima Bajpai, was then interning at Navjoti, and introduced me to Dr. Bedi. Seeing my art Dr. Bedi proposed I conduct an art workshop at the Bhondsi District Prison, Gurugram. I was then an established, progressive, contemporary visual artist, doing my bit for society. With her offer, I foresaw a higher purpose awaiting me. I was swept along by her contagious enthusiasm and passion. There was no turning back from there”, she recalls.

The same year, Bhondsi became Art Connect’s pilot project in Artistic Prison Reform. The initial four years involved narrowing over 40 potential artists from among the inmates down to a core group of eight for their aptitude and artistic skills. While concentrating on art and sculpture, Superintendent of Police Harinder Singh, District Prison Gurugram, suggested and supported revamping the entire 5000 sq. ft. four-sided exterior façade. Within four months the concept and designs were ready on paper. The unanimous thematic choice was National Integration incorporating Indian icons. 

Left: Artist ‘nishu’ Natasha Chopra Bhambri with her first team of eight artists at Bhondsi District Prison, Gurugram
Right: Seen from left, Dr Kiran Bedi, Lt. Governor, Puducherry and Founder of India Vision Foundation, Art Connect’s ‘nishu’ Natasha Chopra Bhambri, Monica Dhawan, Director, IVF and Superintendent of Police, Vipin Mishra, Kasna District Prison, Greater Noida, UP.

“Art Connect’s team – Aman, Ravi, Manish, Babulal, Anand, Hari Singh, Subhash, and Parveen – had already demonstrated their specialisation with respective mediums, including Maati Bandhu with the local sandy ‘mitti’ and Malba Bandhu comprising of discarded rubble, stones, telephone wire, etc. These installations have given ‘faces’ to trees and formed murals and textured walls. The entire interior of Bhondsi had permanently been reinforced as an evolving art and sculpture gallery. I was confident our next challenge of transforming the prison’s exterior would be a success too,” reconfirms the 45-year old artist. 

For this project, ‘nishu’ spent four-five hours daily commuting from Noida to Gurgaon and back home. “Preparations started by designing, graph up, setting the base proportions and supervising my enthused team. They worked relentlessly during the 47 degrees summer temperatures, at times perched 15ft high on ladders. Their commitment overwhelmed and inspired me to keep innovating new techniques. I kept raising the bar and they kept stretching upwards to reach it! This became a sort of spiritual journey for me, aided by Monica Dhawan, Director, IVF. The art on the façade soon attracted eyeballs. People stopped and watched the prisoners painting, and in turn, gave the artists appreciation and some recognition,” she avers.

Left & Right: The Art Connect-IVF-Sony Pictures Network combination resulted in sculpture and art creating spaces resonating with music. These Dhun pillars are at the Dasna District Prison, Ghaziabad, UP. Similar concepts for music rooms were crafted in other district prisons.
Centre: The Nesting Rocks, a wall mount at Bhondsi prison, focuses on the importance of acceptance of the inmates who have been skill trained, by the outside world after their release. The rocks repainted as birds represent inmates ‘nestling’ in society, symbolised by a tree trunk.

This initial collaborative attempt became life-changing for ‘nishu’. “Some moments are going to last with me forever…. One day, upon reaching the prison, my team asked me to go to the storeroom with them. Standing there was a work-in-progress, almost a six feet tall dinosaur. “Ma’am, you love to experiment. We thought we’d surprise you with our creation. But we got stuck with the proportions so need your guidance.” Their initiative touched me, as did their continued faith in me. Coincidentally, the sugarcane juice I had got, led to sharing a refreshing moment on another searing hot day!” 

As the next project came up, various corporate CSR stepped in to conduct training programs and sponsoring the artistic transformations. The Art Connect-IVF-Sony Pictures Network combination resulted in creating dedicated spaces resonating with music in Kasna in Greater Noida and Dasna District Prisons in Ghaziabad, UP, and in Haryana’s District Prison in Ambala and Sunariya in Rohtak. In all, thematic Dhun music rooms were designed with Maati musical instruments and notes on walls and pillars. 

For the four-sided, 5000 sq. ft. prison façade, Superintendent of Police Harinder Singh, District Prison Gurugram, suggested and supported its upgrading. ‘nishu’ and her team of artists depicted the theme of National Integration by painting national symbols of India. At left, India’s national animal, the tiger, symbolises strength and endurance, while the dove is for universal peace. The closed, fisted hands show strength in unity. The Banyan tree, at right, symbolises stability and expansion of our society.

Beyond Art Connect, ‘nishu’ runs her own Nishwet Creative House with her soul sister Shweta Bajpai. They participate in numerous art shows pan-India and take on private commissions – residential, commercial, corporate, CSR projects – or give artistic support to social awareness Government campaigns like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan association with Noida Authority and HCL. ‘nishu’ was recently invited to put up a larger-than-life art Installation at KGAF2020 (Kala Ghoda Arts Festival) in Mumbai, in appreciation of her artistic spirit.

‘nishu’s affair with art started as a child in Bikaner, copying cartoons and comics from newspapers. Sighting talent in his daughter, her Engineer father, Shri T K Chadha got her art supplies, and her mother Kiran Chadha, and brother Aashish Chadha became her best critics and driving force. A self-driven, self-taught art enthusiast, she learned 24 styles of paintings and has been exhibiting since college.  

Left: Using ‘Maati Bandhu’ technique to put faces on trees to give them identities – and make the prison inmates sensitive to their surroundings.
Centre: Mulakat via Hands’ is a functional interactive assemblage work. The wall clock is in Gurugram’s district prison’s Mulakat (meeting) Room. Like in real life where the inmates meet their families but cannot physically touch each other, the hands too do not touch – despite no manmade barrier – and the Mulakat is limited by Time.
Right: The Malba Bandhu figure made up of rubble, stones and discarded metal wires, represents the use of society’s discards to give a new shape, life and identity to these inmates.

As she signs off, ‘nishu’ goes back to her passion – the artists behind bars.These boys continue working on various projects and earn money by selling their art, including at the annual Surajkund Fair. An initial commission for them was a 12ft. x12ft. Maati sculpture of the Haryana logo for the State’s 50th Swarna Utsav year in 2016. The boys have also taken on training programs to mentor their fellow inmates in art and sculpture. As their terms finish, each artist is certified by IVF and Art Connect to enable their reintegration back into society, giving them the opportunities and trust they deserve. Many of those joining mainstream society are still in touch with me. I am blessed I still can help strengthen this reform program which will continue to give many present and future inmates a sense of hope and positivity – and bring moments of colourful joy into their lives.”

“I aspire to continue making changes where society needs it. Alongside my commercial art, I seek opportunities for my creative rainbow to help colour others’ world – and simultaneously, mine. My colours and me – that is the entirety of the moment. Art is my Paradise,” concludes ‘nishu’ whose encouragement comes from her husband Vikas Bhambri and sons Jai and Lakshya.


  1. “When I joined Art Connect, I could paint a little but now I am confident I can take up bigger jobs. It keeps my mind busy, and can further help me creatively whenever I’ll be released,” Ravi, 25, (convict.)
  2. “When Nishu ma’am told us we were going to paint, I didn’t believe we could do it. But now I feel so proud. It was a learning experience for all of us.” – Manish, 28 (convict).
  3. “I used to paint before coming here. Art Connect has taught me so much that I couldn’t have possibly learned outside. I’m eager to restart life with this newly gained knowledge.” – Aman, 35 (Released and working as an apprentice at Nishwet Creative House, fulfilling one of ‘nishu’s dreams of “from prison to reintegration into mainstream society”) 
Bhondsi exterior in panorama- Before After
Bhondsi exterior in panorama- Before and After


Contact point for buying ‘Art behind Bars’:
* ‘nishu’ Natasha Chopra Bhambri Email: [email protected]
* Monica Dhawan, Director, India Vision Foundation.
Email: [email protected]

Amita Sarwal
Amita Sarwal

After an erratic 10-year practice as a homeopathic doctor, Amita took to writing in 1973.  Her 45+ year career encompasses contributions to a very extensive gamut of magazines and newspapers- in India and abroad-on lifestyle, travel, architecture, personalities, book, and restaurant reviews, etc.  
During her 21 years based in Singapore, she was an Editor with the renowned publisher Editions Didier Millet and completed six pictorial encyclopedias on Indonesia and Malaysia among other coffee table books.  Her personal passion was writing ‘The spirit of SKV’- Chronicle of a Girls’ School to mark the Golden Jubliee (2006) of her alma mater Scindia Kanya Vidyalaya, Gwalior. Now Amita has an increasingly strong focus on featuring Changemakers/Unsung heroes of India who are helping make a difference to society-“because the world needs to know about their exemplary work.”  Yoga, social work to help the underprivileged, reading and collecting forms of Lord Ganesh also keep her busy.

Read more by Amita Sarwal


Picture Credit : Art Connect, Noida

56 thoughts on “Art Behind Bars”

  1. Amita ji, you bring such beautiful stories to us. This one is again very inspiring. It shows how we can create humans out of those who might have committed chilling crimes.
    It gives a ray of hope to us all who are trying to bring some positive change around us.
    Keep sharing!

  2. Very interesting and informative . Shows there is no limit to human ingenuity and in how many ways one can make a contribution for betterment of life and world around us .
    Thanks Amita for spreading such efforts around .

  3. The artist in Nishu was waiting to be expanded. Dr Kiran Bedi saw her art , recognized her a persona ; gave a boost to complete herself. And, Dr Kiran Bedi fulfilled her own agenda : the passion to build up the esteem of “Her” prisoners.Thank you Amita for bringing all this into our world in such a inspiring manner.

  4. Beautiful article. Just shows a little effort love, and compassion can go a long way to change human beings.
    Great work by Nishu!
    Thanks for bringing us out of our little worlds to issues like these.

  5. What a beautiful and useful purpose Nishi has used her talents to burn her mental energy on people who have had unfortunate experiences in life.I wish they are able yo enjoy a better future hereafter.Thanks Amita for forwarding to me.

  6. Thank you Amita for sharing such inspirational lives of good samaritans like Nishu. Wish this could be aired by Mr Sardesai on India Today channel in his ‘Feel Good’ story- A ray of hope in these not so good times.

    1. Thank you. If you have a link to Rajdeep Sardesai, please forward to him. And to others who might be interested in this story.

    1. Yes, that’s Nishu’s mission starting with one of the boys who has finished his term & is interning in Nishu’s studio.

  7. What a wonderful idea to channel hidden talents behind bars! Accolades to Kiran Bedi for the bright idea,and Nishu for carrying it to fruition! So glad you wrote about it Amita,now one can make efforts to buy their work and encourage the inmates. Wishing everyone great success.

  8. Path breaking work , Indeed a transformation not only of the walls of the prison but of the mindset regarding prisons . Kudos

  9. Amita very well written article, ‘Art Behind Bars’.Commendable initiative by IVF to transform the lives of inmates.Nishu as an artist played pivotal role in exploring the talent among the inmates n making this project fruitful.Well said , ‘The journey continues .‘My good wishes to all.

  10. अद्भुत, अनूठा, अप्रतिम सराहनीय कार्य!
    सलाखों के पीछे का सृजनात्मक, भावनाओं
    का समुद्र, तूलिका और रगों की ज़बान में कागज़ पर लहरा रहा है! बधाई, शुभकामनाएं!

  11. Nishu is actually transforming lives by bringing prisoners back into the mainstream society. She is taking her passion for art to support the society….what a noble deed. Inspiring Lives…
    Article is very well written and beautifully covers the journey of artist…’NISHU’

  12. ” बंधन में उलझे हृदयों में
    संचारित करती नव आशा
    विविध कलाओं और लेखन से
    गढ़ती सृजन की नव परिभाषा
    सौम्य शांत हर्षित और स्नेहिल
    अद्भुत है व्यक्तित्व ” नताशा ” !! “

  13. I do appreciate for this motivational and inspiring creativity and this work. It’s going to be a very fruitful and healthy atmosphere in the society and forthcoming generation.

  14. Nice gesture Natasha you are doing great job. You have channelized negativity of prisoners towards positive direction . Through creative activities one can always change the approach of life in developing constructive thought process. All the best wishes for your creative journey.

  15. What a fantastic way to inspire the prisoners!! The initiative is truly commendable. Hats off to each and everyone involved in this project. My best wishes to you Nishu for future endeavors.👍🏻👍🏻

  16. Beautiful. So proud of you nishu . You are one of the best artist and a even better human being. Knowing you for almost all my life as a friend I feel blessed.
    It is heartening to see your art being recognised and put to such a good use. Doing what you love and inspiring others as well. You and your team changed the outlook of the prison completely . God bless

    1. Obviously Nishu is very close to you. Please help by forwarding her article to other like-minded friends so her work can spread out further.

  17. Beautiful…I am falling short of good words in my dictionary to comment on the good work of the artist ” Nishu” …Hats off to the thought that has gone to paint the walls and change the ambience of the place which does not look like a jail any more…God bless her ..

  18. Truly an unsung hero!!
    Gives the prisoners a purpose to integrate back into the mainstream to lead fulfilling lives . So many wonderful people in the world. God Bless their efforts under inspirational guidance from Nishu!
    Thanks Amita for your untiring efforts to bring us these stories.

  19. Amita Sarwal. . . . beautiful write up on Nishu. Very inspiring n wonderful work by nishu for changing the surroundings of prison n life of inmates. She has cultivated them to be useful n better persons for society. Hat’s off to each n every one involved in this project. My Best wishes to NISHU for future.

  20. Art Connect is such an amazing endeavour. The artist Natasha’s touches and inspires the inmates to channelize their energies creatively! Admirable…
    Amita thank you for this lovely piece and introducing us to this sensitive, gifted artist.

  21. Natasha always desired to contribute towards society through her art. She is not only an established artist and a well known name in our country’s art fraternity but also a lady with a beautiful heart full of compassion and a strong will to bring a change.

  22. Kudos to Kiran Bedi and Nishu for such a wonderful idea.Thanks to you Amita ji for bringing ART BEHIND BARS to us.

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