Every third blind person in the world is an Indian according to S S Badrinath, renowned ophthalmologist and founder of Sankara Nethralaya of Chennai. In talks with the Indian Express he stated that out of the world’s 45 million visually challenged individuals, 15 million are Indians. Statistics regarding the number of visually challenged and impaired citizens of India have varied from survey to survey, placing the numbers between 7 million and 15 million.
The bottom line is that the country has a large population of visually challenged and differently-abled people, yet, there still remains prejudice, discrimination and lack of facilities, leaving them very little space in our culture and society. “We say we’re an inclusive culture, but we don’t provide infrastructure for differently-abled individuals. So, the reality actually becomes exclusive,” says Siddhant Shah, a heritage architect and access management consultant, whose latest project Abhas strives to make cultural spaces accessible for differently-abled individuals.
The world of visual art has long been shut off to those who are visually impaired, but Shah aims to break these barriers. While most art exhibitions place ‘please don’t touch’ signs, Abhas invites you to touch, feel and experience art like never before. Shah creates a unique platform for the involvement of the visually impaired in the visual art world , as well as to sensitise and educate people in the audience about disabilities.
Collaborating with the DAG Modern for the India Art Fair 2016, Shah created tactile reproductions, tactile aids and braille books for four famous works of art, and designed a walk-through for the visually impaired. Blindfolded walks were organised for those people with vision to get a feel of what art appreciation would be like without sight, and to create awareness and sensitivity about how the visually challenged navigate and experience spaces. Walk-throughs were done with students from the National Association for the Blind, along with other schools and people with proper vision who were blindfolded.
Once again working with DAG Modern and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Abhas’ unique experience is now in Mumbai with a series of workshops being hosted at the gallery in Kala Ghoda. Students from across the city are participating in the workshop which Kaveri Acharya, who works in marketing and outreach for the gallery, tells us is based on an ongoing show, ‘Art of Santiniketan,’ at the gallery. “A total of four works have been reproduced by Mr. Shah,” says Kaveri, these are two works by Rabindranath Tagore, a painting of an Esraj player by Nandalal Bose, and a cubist style, oil on cardboard painting by Ramkinker Baij.
The entire experience is based on the paradigm of the collage’s and lithographs made by Benode Behari Mukherjee which he made when he had lost his vision. Describing the workshop Kaveri tells us that participants are blindfolded and given papers of different shapes and textures. They’re asked to use their visual memory to create collages with different materials, fabrics and textures. Blindfolded, they’re taken from piece to piece and asked to experience and ‘view’ them in a tactile manner.
When asked how people with vision, as opposed to those who are visually impaired, react to the workshop and walk-through, Kaveri tells us they differ in their patience; “In my observations, people who have sight are used to seeing visual art, as opposed to feeling it and letting the subject of the painting slowly unravel--their patience during the entire process is less compared to the visually challenged. A lot of the people who were visually impaired had never actually encountered a painting before. For them, art is expressions of three-dimensional and more tangible things like sculptures and performance art, not two dimensional surfaces--that in itself was a tremendous experience for them.”
As an architecture student studying at Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, on several occasions he had the opportunity to visit monuments and sites. “I was fascinated by how they feel--It’s history,” he tells us. Shah received a scholarship to go study at a University in Greece, and during his study of heritage management he was exposed to innovative museums in Athens, and one of them was a tactile museum that was incredibly accommodating to the visually impaired. Returning to India made him realise the absence of such a facility even more and he wanted to put something similar into place. For all the applause and appreciation he gets he humbly states there is nothing extraordinary in his work, it’s something which should already be existing. “My mother has partial vision impairment,” he shares. “I’ve lived and dealt with it, I know the kinds of problems she faced over the years. In Greece, people were not dependent on anyone or anything. They had things like tactile aids and braille which made them confident, they didn’t need someone to guide them.”
Explaining how Shah’s tactile reproductions work, Kaveri gives us the example of one of the works which is a portrait by Rabindranath Tagore using pen and ink paper--the reworking of it uses compressed wood boards with embossed surfaces. For Nandalal Bose’s painting, Shah created an exact print out on cardboard and highlighted the edges of the musicians instrument. “We play the music and light agarbattis to try to make it a complete sensory experience. We ask participants to imagine what the musician would look like, how he would be sitting and so on--the addition of sound and smell as tactile aids make it an intimate experience,” shares Kaveri.
“The goal is to try to understand how art can be received by people with visual impairment. While globally, there have been serious efforts to open up cultural spaces to make them more inclusive to people with disability, it is only recently that India is catching on to the significance of this and attempts are being made to engage with universal access design.”
The workshops will be on from May 9 to May 14 at DAG Modern, Kala Ghoda , Fort, Mumbai, during gallery hours – 11 AM, to 7 PM. There is no workshop fee and walk-ins will be entertained, though a prior group appointment is preferable.