Pankaj Ghosal remembers the time,the exact day and date when his parents took him to visit Akshardham. It was November11,2010,a Thursday. We spent the entire day there, he recalls. It was the first time he had visited a place of historical importance. But being visually impaired,he understood little about the temples grandeur or beauty. For him,visiting the temple was no different from visiting the neighborhood mall. It was spacious,crowded,a place to spend the day.
When Rummi Seth took a bunch of visually impaired children to Qutub Minar for an educational trip about 10 years ago,she observed the same thing. The trip turned out to be nothing more than a walk in a garden for the children.
That set me thinking. How do you explain a monument to someone who hasnt seen it? How do you make them understand what the Qutub Minar is? About its importance or its place in history?
So,she decided to collaborate with School of Planning and Architecture (SPA),where a detailed plan was prepared to build exact models of some of the most famous monuments in the world to their original dimensions. The aim is to not just make monuments more accessible to the visually impaired,but to also give them a means to see them through touch and feel, she says.
Over the next one year,25-30 students from SPA would work on the project and painstakingly build 10 monuments that would be lookalikes of the originals to the last detail. Some of them such as the London Eye and Sanchi Stupa turned out to be great hits among students. The Eye was made using a bicycle wheel and it caused quite a stir. Children couldnt stop playing with it, Seth says.
We knew plastic models wouldnt do,nor would those souvenirs you found in the handicraft shops. We had to build models to scale for them to look and feel exactly like the real things. So the small details became the big markers, Shardha Bhandari,an architect who helped coordinate the project with SPA,says.
Original textures and forms became important. Sponges soaked in water were used to create water under the Howrah Bridge. marble plaster (a material closest to real marble) was used to make the Taj Mahal model. Pavements were made using real stone. Traffic sounds were recorded and used to convey sounds around Jantar Mantar, she says.
It was also ensured that every model had a human reference in the form of a car,a building or a person for the children to judge a monuments size.
For the students themselves,the experience turned out to be quite enriching. The way the visually impaired experience art is totally different from how the sighted view it. Their senses are really heightened,and that makes them fine judges of form and texture. In fact,they can sense details better than most. So,the kids made for critical judges of our students, Bhandari adds. Seth,however,has more in mind. Children now want to see the Red Fort and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. So thats what we want to create, she says.
After monuments,her mind is set on movies. In the last few months,her organisation has audio-described 14 Bollywood movies,filling each voiceless scene with dialogue that details every setting,nuance and action when the actors voice stops,so a visually impaired person understands it in its entirety.
Enjoying a movie without looking at the screen is unimaginable. But its a blind persons reality. Describing movies or creating monuments is not just about amusing or entertaining them,but about opening up a whole new world that was inaccessible to them previously, she says.