India

Stefan Kaye: India's 'jailhouse rocker' remembers days in prison

Stefan Kaye
Image caption Stefan Kaye is regarded as one of Delhi's most popular alternative acts. Photo: Prism Len$ Photography

British musician Stefan Kaye spent three weeks in Delhi's notorious Tihar jail as a prisoner and then went back with his band to hold a concert there. He spoke to the BBC's Geeta Pandey about his time in jail and all the good that came out of adversity.

On most Saturday nights, Stefan Kaye can be found at a smoky basement nightclub in a fashionable neighbourhood of Delhi. On the night I visit, Kaye is performing live with one of his other bands - Jazz B'stards.

I'm asked to pay 300 rupees ($5.39; £3.56) as entry charge and my wrist is stamped before I'm allowed in.

The room is teeming with people and those who can are sitting down. Most others are standing and a small enthusiastic bunch is dancing.

"This band is different, they are very innovative," says Atul Khanna, an entrepreneur among the audience. "And see how well they connect with the crowd."

At the end of the concert, I approach Kaye and tell him that the last time my wrist was stamped was when I went to Tihar jail to interview some prisoners.

"How uncanny," he says, "because I spent three weeks in Tihar jail."

"It was all a misunderstanding," he explains.

Kaye, who is regarded as "one of the most popular alternative acts in Delhi", arrived in India as a project director for a market research firm in 2006.

'Overwhelming'

Born and raised near Croydon in south London, he was exposed to music early in life - his father was a drummer in a jazz band - and says he always knew he wanted to be a musician.

"The first thing I did in India was put together a band. We called it the Emperor Minge."

Over the next three years, he also formed various other bands including the Ska Vengers, "the first band to do Jamaican ska music in India".

Three-and-a-half years later, he quit his job to devote himself full-time to music and theatre.

But then something happened that would transform Kaye's musical journey in India - he lost his passport.

"I hadn't reported it, thinking it would show up," he says, admitting he is not very good at practical matters.

Image caption The Ska for Tihar concert was a huge success

It did not turn up, but one Friday evening in December 2011, the police showed up at his door and arrested him.

"It was an extraordinary time. I had a really bad headache, all the slamming of doors, shouting, bright lights. I was taken to various offices for signing papers, giving my thumb impression and a medical examination."

Once inside Tihar jail, he says, he was impressed with the beautiful well-tended gardens, but found the barracks overwhelming.

"I was lodged with 60 other prisoners and all of them kept greeting me. There aren't that many foreigners in the jail and I was a novelty. Everyone wanted to know where I was from and why I was there?"

Many of the inmates, he says, were disappointed to hear that he was there for a visa violation - it was not a "serious enough" crime in their eyes.

A few days later, he was moved to another - an almost empty - barracks, but life in prison wasn't easy.

Dark chapter

"There were no mattresses, just a few blankets, and it was cold. I wasn't allowed belts or shoelaces for fear that I might try to hang myself, and lights were left on all the time - bright fluorescent strips of lights, everywhere in the ceiling, left on all night."

Image caption Kaye says he found a lot of creative people in Tihar jail

Bright lights notwithstanding, Kaye says it was a dark chapter in his life.

"I had no idea how long I would be there so I wanted to make it as positive an experience as possible. Otherwise, there's a chance you'd sink. So I asked around to see if there was a music ward in the prison."

In jail, he spent most of his time in the music ward where he joined up with a Canadian inmate to teach music to prisoners.

"There were a lot of creative people and a number of them had musical potential, all they needed was nurturing. There was a decrepit drum and a keyboard so we started training them".

But jail, Kaye says, was "quite a humbling experience".

"It gave me time to examine my ideas of criminals and criminality and I realised that my fellow inmates were not as I had imagined, these people were not thugs or criminals. There were some nasty people, but there were also some who were regular people thrown in extraordinary situations."

Three weeks later, when his friends and band-mates managed to bail him out, Kaye says he was "almost disappointed" to be leaving.

"I had just begun enjoying my time without a mobile phone, I was trying to write, put together a musical."

While in jail, Kaye says he had begun to think about organising a concert in prison for the inmates and also wanted to raise some money to replace the equipment in the music ward.

Prison performance

Once out, he persuaded music instrument retailer Furtados to sponsor the gig and donate equipment for prisoners' use.

Image caption During the concert, Kaye lit the lamp and gave a speech

And in April last year, the former inmate went back to jail. "This time, I wasn't there as a prisoner. I lit the lamp, gave a speech, was treated like a VIP (very important person)."

The Ska for Tihar concert, which included songs on police brutality, corrupt politicians and other similarly strong themes, was a huge success - attended by nearly 1,000 prisoners, cheering, dancing, clapping and singing - and covered by the national and international media.

"The only concession we made for the prison was our lead female vocalist Samara didn't show her legs. She wore pants, instead of shorts," he says.

"The concert was good, the prisoners enjoyed it," jail spokesman Sunil Gupta told the BBC. He said as an inmate too, Kaye's "behaviour was good. We never received any complaints against him."

Looking at the prisoners' response to his concert, Kaye says he now realises the importance of music in their lives.

"The next step is to develop a comprehensive musical tuition programme for jail. I'm in talks with some musicians to see if we can help send in some of them to train prisoners."

But, he says since his stint in Tihar, the prison management has changed hands and to get back in, he will have to start from the scratch.

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