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Creating new worlds for the visually impaired in India

A look at different initiatives from the subcontinent that are aimed to create unique, holistic art experiences for the visually impaired.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 10 May

  • Reproductions

Tactile reproduction by Access for ALL designed for DAG

The universality of art as a medium of expression is powerful, bridging gaps between time, cultures, languages and people. Yet every human being’s experience of an artwork is starkly different. Take the case of the visually impaired community, who cannot see the art per se. But thanks to initiatives like incorporating Braille into paintings, creating tactile or auditory experiences of museum tours or training them to draw and create their own works of art, these closed doors are finally opening up, introducing the community to entirely new worlds and possibilities.

In India, it is inspiring to see the changes in this field over time, from honing the skills of visually impaired artists like Binod Behari Mukherjee and photographers who create their own visual language for the world to see to Braille magazines for the entertainment of the community.

We speak to some of the gamechangers in India, whose visions of change are paving the way for a better future for the visually impaired:

Braille paintings created by Access For ALL in order to make art available to the visually impaired

Siddhant Shah, Architect, Access For ALL

Beyond the art of creating itself, there needs to be creative channels that support the visually impaired in different ways, like by introducing them to art in unique ways. By using Braille art that can be touched and visualised, architect Siddhant Shah of Access For ALL is doing just that. “The process begins by selecting a work based on the subject, level of difficulty, medium and artist. My team then does a thorough study of the art, finding stories and trivia around them. Based on that, we create works which are tactile in nature with Braille fused in them. I infuse it with sounds, smells and music to give a heightened experience, thus providing a multi-sensory approach to visual art,” shares Siddhant, who has worked with DAG Modern, National Museum (Delhi), Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum (Jaipur) and others to create tactile galleries. The organisation also creates blindfolded art walks to sensitise other audiences toward inclusiveness and disability.

While the response from the visually impaired community has been fulfilling, a lot more must be done to bridge the gap. “We want to especially enable visually impaired students to take up art as a medium of creative expression. Currently, art and craft for them is restricted to only making making paper bags, creating candles and cane chairs. There is so much more to be taken up as a vocation if their skills are channelised appropriately. For example, after experiencing a Braille tactile reproduction of an encaustic work at DAG, one of the students went to his teacher and asked why they weren't allowed to explore wax in such a manner. Those are the kind of opportunities we want to enable,” states Siddhant.

Crenulate's The Blind Bind Book is a means to create employment opportunities for the blind

Sambhav Raj, Founder, Crenulate

While Shivani is trying to train these children to use art to express themselves and go forward in life, there are other visionaries who are creating alternate employment opportunities for the visually impaired. One such person is Sambhav Raj, who runs a social enterprise called Crenulate dedicated to empower the blind and be an intermediary to provide skills and set up a business model.

How it works is that a group of Crenulate volunteers share their knowledge of book binding and designing diaries and notebooks with the visually impaired. The cover design and paper manufacturing is taken care of by the team and the hand-stitched binding is done by the visually impaired. The end result is The Blind Bind Book, with a portion of the sales going back to the makers, for whom this becomes a means of sustenance. “Short visits to the Blind School Diwali Mela in New Delhi made me aware of the potential of this project. I think of myself as a creative individual and have always loved the idea of utilising individual skills to empower those in need. So Crenulate shows them a path rather than spoon-feeding them. The purpose is to equip the visually impaired with a new skill in their bag so that they can choose to pursue this as a profession in the future, should they wish to,” shares Sambhav.

He also hopes to change the buyer’s perception through this endeavour. “By reading the first page that gives a translation of Braille into the English alphabet, we aim to make the visually sighted more aware and conscious of fellow blind people around them. My vision for Crenulate is the non-existence of the very enterprise. The true success will come when the wards wouldn’t need us at all and become self-sustainable,” he adds.

Chintamani Hasabnis incorporates the Braille script into his paintings to allow blind people and those with sight to view his work together and spark conversations

Chintamani Hasabnis, Artist

Chintamani Hasabnis, a Pune-based artist, creates art that can be ‘seen’ by the visually impaired. The idea of using Braille in his work struck him after observing a blind girl crossing a crowded street unaided in Pune. “She crossed with ease and confidence and vanished into the crowd. This incident got me thinking – why can’t the visually impaired see paintings? Is it possible to help them to connect with paintings? I remembered Picasso’s words, “Painting is a blind man’s profession. A painter is painting not what he sees but what he feels”. I found a paradox - visually sound people can be blind to their surroundings whilst visually impaired people see beyond visual perception. That is when I decided to learn Braille for a year,” shares Chintamani.

Soon, he found himself incorporating the Braille script into his paintings, and before he knew it, he had created an exhibition titled ‘Closed Eyes & Open Minds’. “On completing a few paintings, I invited my blind friends to see them. There was an indescribable joy on their faces on seeing the paintings. And it struck me that I had added a new perspective to the concept of visual art, which was very satisfying! I think I unknowingly added one more element to drawing apart from Point, Line, Shape, and Color - Texture! I named the Braille in my paintings as an ‘Emotional Decoder’, which is the most important element of my paintings,” he says, adding that the philosophy of the experiment was to have blind people and those with sight to see the paintings together. “This dialogue between two types of spectators, who are experiencing the paintings on two different levels, is important. They will inadvertently peep into each other’s minds. I hope this brings about a positive change in our society.”

White Print: India's first lifestyle magazine for the visually impaired in Braille English;Tactabet - Braille tactile alphabet books for children developed by Upasana Makati

Upasana Makati, Founder, White Print

Finally, one of the most beautiful initiatives designed for the visually impaired is White Print, India's first lifestyle magazine for the visually impaired in Braille English. The brainchild of Upasana Makati, “White Print's vision is to walk into any bookstore and see a section of Braille books”. “We want to create ample reading options in Braille for both kids and adults,” says Upasana, who had the idea in the middle of the night in 2013. On digging into Braille literature and publications, the gaping need convinced her about the importance of creating a product like White Print.

“I wondered what the visually impaired read in their leisure time or how they start their day. I love my time with the newspaper every morning with a cup of tea. But when I visited the National Association of the Blind, in Mumbai, I realised there weren't any magazine or newspaper options available in Braille. I requested the organization to connect me to a few individuals from the community. I spoke to different age groups of people and the common thread across conversations was the excitement that they showed even to the thought of having a monthly magazine. This convinced me to quit my job and dive into this beautiful world,” she shares.

Upasana acknowledges that while this is a slow process, she is taking it one step at a time. “With Tactabet - our Braille tactile alphabet books for children, we spoke to a lot of bookstores to stock them. But their responses like “Keep it at blind schools for the visually impaired” would upset me. I stayed at it, and finally, we have the visionary folks at Trilogy, Mumbai stocking our books and magazine. We need likeminded people with a vision who help us make our country accessible and inclusive,” notes Upasana, adding that the conversations around White Print have slowly started changing perceptions of the blind. “In our country, anything to do with people of with a disability is termed as charity. However, we've maintained how we are a for-profit organisation and that in itself has changed people’s notions. We've had big names like Coca-Cola India, Vodafone, Aircel, Mahindra, Pidilite etc advertising with us in the magazine. For brands that only rely on glossy, graphic-heavy ads to now explore text-based Braille options is in itself a really big change,” she wraps up.

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Photographs clicked by Pranav Lal

Pranav Lal, Photographer

Pranav Lal, a New Delhi-based photographer, has congenital blindness. But this never deterred him from exploring the medium. Instead, he used vOICe vision technology to give him synthetic vision through image-to-sound renderings. “I had read about vOICe for some time in the late 90s. When I started B-school in 2000, I bought a laptop with a webcam, which became an artificial eye for me. Till then, I had never had any form of visual input. Given that we don’t have the vulcan mind meld from Star Trek which facilitates direct transfer of thoughts between two people, I wanted to explore how to show what I am seeing to a wider audience. So I decided to start photography and people started responding. With vOICe, the panning of the sound represents where the object is in the horizontal plane; the frequency represents the relative height of the object and the volume of the sound represents the brightness. I decode this soundscape and figure out what I am looking at,” he explains.

Uninterested by humans as subjects that ‘appear like blobs’, Pranav’s work tends to capture landscapes, structures and shapes. “Photographs are a way of capturing what I cannot touch. For example, I can’t touch a flying aircraft or a star. But I can capture it. For me, it’s about clicking a moment, end of story. Next scene please,” adds the inspiring photographer, whose dream project is to create a tactile exhibition where one can touch, see and smell the exhibits.

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Drawings made by Shivani Bharadwaj's students who are visually impaired

Shivani Bharadwaj, Founder, Inside Me

For Shivani Bharadwaj, who runs Inside Me to teach drawing to the blind, passing on the joys of creating art is gratifying even if no organisation backs her up. She takes after-school art classes for students between the age groups of five upto 20 free of charge at two blind schools - Institute for The Blind and Janta Adarsh Andh Vidyalaya. “Drawing or holding a crayon itself is difficult for these children; they hold it the way they hold a Braille pen. So in my classes, I always begin with helping them understand shapes and then teaching them basic techniques. If I tell them that a roti or bindi is round and make them feel it, they still find it hard to relate. I help them visualise, keeping in mind that their perspective is an aerial view, not 2D,” says Shivani, who has been teaching visually impaired children since 2013.

With only passion to back her initiative and no financial help, promotions and volunteering, the journey hasn’t been easy. But Shivani is undeterred by the challenges, knowing how important her work is. “People underestimate the power of visualisation. I’m trying to establish drawing as a medium which can help them understand other subjects. These are children who feel the shape of an artwork by touching and feeling the crayon embossing. Their fingers are their eyes! I’ve created tools like writing the name of colours in Braille on the paint caps, using the fragrance of a rose to mark the colour red, etc. In this field, you need consistency; it’s not a hobby. The kids wait for you to show up. For people who haven’t seen the world, to draw a line is a big feat. People need to understand that this too is real art,” she says.

With pride, Shivani recalls setting up an art booth at India Art Festival ‘17 with artworks for sale that were made by her students. “I’m against donations because people can’t think of these children differently. Their world is different and they’re happy in it. I’m not doing this out of pity. Which is why at the fair, people were allowed to buy the artworks for whatever value they wanted to offer. This is not something I want to turn into a business,” she concludes.

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