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Capital Letters

An art project by the team at reFrame. Commissioned by Project 39A, National Law University Delhi


The Background

There are over fifty kinds of crimes in India, for which there is legal sanction to sentence the guilty to death. We hear about the death penalty mostly in the context of terror crimes, multiple murders, or sexual assaults that horrify us, and assume that capital punishment must be reserved for the most heinous, the rarest of the rare cases. But, in fact, across the country, 730 people have been sentenced to death in just the last 5 years. That’s 1 person every 2.5 days. And there's almost nothing we know about any of them.

CAPITAL LETTERS is an attempt to unlock our minds and meet some of these people. To get a glimpse, through their letters, of what it is like to live in that dark space where death is the only certainty. Letters filled with trauma, memories, information, helplessness, loneliness, remorse and desperation. Letters that sometimes, amazingly, carry a glimmer of hope, joy, or laughter. Letters often written by other inmates on behalf of those who cannot read or write. So that through their words and silences, we may hear their voices. Loud and clear.

"Commissioned by Project 39A, the experience of working on this project has been like no other. For it is rare to be trusted with the words of those living under the shadow of death. It is challenging to confront the suffering they may have caused, and yet have compassion for them. It is worrisome to consider that a system meant to be impervious to social prejudice, remains firmly skewed against the poor and illiterate, and those disadvantaged by hierarchies of caste, class, religion or ethnicity. People whose life experiences compel us to rethink how the criminal justice system should work; how the Constitution's promise of equality and liberty can be fulfilled; and how we, as a people, must reimagine justice beyond revenge and retribution. And in doing so, question the death penalty itself."

These are the words with which we described our experience of creating the online exhibition based on letters and art from death row, India. Carrying forward the same spirit, the team at reFrame then created this mixed media installation.

The Installation

CAPITAL LETTERS is an interactive, experiential installation designed to bring us face to face with the circumstances and lived experiences of persons given the punishment of death.

Based on letters and art from death row inmates in India, the installation features found objects, physical elements, digital interfaces and the interplay of materials and tactility, images and text, darkness, shadow and light.

Diverse, if somewhat disparate, content that comes together to transform a safe and inviting cultural and social space into somewhat disturbing, if dystopian, experience of incarceration. Transporting visitors into the mindscape and physical environment inhabited by the men and women who live under the sentence of death.

WELCOME TO DEATH CELL. The Physical Experience

FLOOR TO CEILING acetate sheets of text at the entrance create controlled darkness and shadows and block off the surroundings - a creative strategy designed to dislodge visitors from their comfort zone from the moment they enter the exhibition space.

THE POWERFUL use of typography all around, compels visitors to engage with multiple and diverse experiences of prisoners on death row. Singular words from their letters and communiqués trigger complex thoughts and contemplations.

OLD TRUNKS full of identity cards carelessly thrown in, encourage visitors to meet those on death row as people beyond numbers; people whose names, families and stories, may be lost but haven't been forgotten.

FACSIMILES of original letters from death row prisoners speak as nothing else can. Men and women writing words and drawing images to express themselves. Speaking of their loved ones, their legal and emotional struggles, the pain they may have inflicted and the pain they are suffering, their ruminations on life and death, and much more.

CENSORED VOICES. The Digital Experience

AN INTERACTIVE MAP invites viewers to engage with numbers of people on death row in every state across the country. The data disrupts the popular notion that the death sentence is only announced in the rarest of the rare cases.

A DIGITAL SCREEN runs a site experience video on a loop, evoking interest in its stories and the people behind it.

A GIGANTIC PROJECTION on the walls, heightens the sense of words trapped behind prison bars, struggling to give inmates a voice, to get out, to reach our ears.

MULTIPLE DISPLAYS projected on crushed paper sheets evoke the letter writing that inspires the entire project, with moving images and text visualising and bringing alive unforgettable quotes from the letters:

  • ON A TIGHTLY TWISTED ROPE reminiscent of the hangman's noose, a prisoner speaks of how he has only seen the poor and illiterate end up on death row.

  • A TORTURE CHAIR is overlaid with many brutal forms of torture that death row inmates have been, and continue, to be subjected to. 

  • A SHATTERING ROSE speaks volumes about the perversity of power exercised on death row inmates by jail authorities. 

  • AN ANIMATED SCREEN describes the mental cost of being sentenced to and living the punishment of death.


Contact us if you'd like to invite the Capital Letters installation

to your institutional, educational or cultural space.

Photo Credits: reFrame team and National Law University, Delhi

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