'Art squad' drawn into terror fight

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 January, 2009, 12:00am


They are artists who draw great portraits but few people would commission them for one, nor are their works likely to be exhibited in art galleries or go under the hammer at auctions.

But they are in great demand in India where terror attacks are on the rise.

Even before last November's Mumbai carnage, there were 11 major terrorist strikes in just two years across the country.

In an effort to catch the perpetrators, police are increasingly calling on the 'art squad' to draw sketches of suspected and wanted criminals based on witness and victim accounts.

Today's forensic artists are using art and technology to draw the faces of still-at-large killers and are a boon for security and intelligence agencies, including the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India's FBI. These artists usually shun the limelight, although their work is sometimes seen nationally in the electronic and print media.

'I fight terrorism with a pencil - and an eraser,' says Calcutta-based Nitin Kumar Biswas, 59.

'My art is very intricate and time-consuming. The pictures we draw must at least bear 80-90 per cent resemblance to the real suspect for a breakthrough.

'I show the sketch first to witnesses who described the suspect's facial features and make changes based on their reaction to the portrait,' he says.

Biswas is employed by the police directorate but most other artists assisting investigators are freelancers who charge from 5,000 rupees to 20,000 rupees (HK$800-HK$3,200) for a portrait.

Mumbai-based Naresh Korde, 24, has sketched the likenesses of the Ghatkopar, Hyderabad, Varanasi and Ayodhya bombers.

'Seventy-five per cent of my sketches have led to arrests. So I am directly involved in the fight against terror,' says Korde.

'I started receiving threatening telephone calls and letters after I was featured in a Mumbai newspaper. But I'm not intimidated.' Korde has job offers from the police in several Indian provinces.

Though freelancers are offered access to computer software designed for artistic depiction of suspects, Biswas keeps computers at arm's length. 'The sketch can never be accurate if you have to choose from a limited set of eyes, noses, jawlines and eyebrows,' he says.

He has his own method of collecting information about facial features, Biswas says. He sometimes takes witnesses to overcrowded areas and asks them to find someone resembling the wanted man. But that is not always an easy task. Sometimes witnesses are so traumatised they can't concentrate.

Biswas says artists must also be wary of unethical police officers who try to sway witnesses or victims because they have a suspect in mind.