A group of people crowd around the entrance of Mumbai’s DAG Modern, some blindfolded, some not. Those who are blindfolded look distinctly uncomfortable, robbed of their sight in an art gallery, a place they would want to use it the most. Standing alongside them are people with vision impairments — curious and excited. Together, they will “see” the gallery’s artwork — in a special initiative called “Abhas” — with the help of tactile reproductions and aids.
Created by Siddhant Shah, who works as an art and disability access consultant for the City Palace of Jaipur, these tactile forms are relatively novel in the Indian art world and have been reproduced for an exhibition at the DAG Modern. Before they are taken through the show, Shah tells the participants: “Understand that we are not trying to reproduce what a person who can see experiences. Blind people can experience and understand art in their own way.”
It was in Greece a few years ago, where he was studying heritage management, that Shah first encountered disabled-friendly museums. The experience, as well as the fact that his mother also has partial vision impairment, inspired the 25-year-old to team up with DAG Modern at the India Art Fair earlier this year, and create “Abhas”. An initiative to make the gallery’s artwork accessible to the visually impaired, and at the same time, show people with normal vision how the blind can engage with art, “Abhas” was a resounding success. It has taken on an expanded form at DAG Mumbai, with Shah also creating a Braille information booklet that has details the artists and their work.
At the walk-though, the group’s first stop is a Jamini Roy painting of Santhal dancers. The rural imagery, ochres and burnt reds of the piece are inaccessible, of course. But that doesn’t matter. “You don’t always have to do a direct reproduction,” says Shah, adding, “You just get the message of the piece across. And touch makes you understand the essence of a piece.”
The participants touch and feel samples of the dry wash of the painting, and replicas of the earthen walls that are omnipresent in Kolkata. They sit in a circle and listen to the drums of Santhal musicians, and lightly touch the drum skin to feel its reverberations. One of the participants says she is immediately taken back to memories of Durga Puja in the city.
Shah, appreciative of the importance of sound in imagery, has chosen the works on display carefully. For example, in the Mumbai exhibition, he specifically selected Nandalal Bose’s pieces, as many of the artist’s paintings feature musicians. The instruments shown in his works are played live, and participants are allowed to touch samples of the canvas and paint. The show is also a learning experience for those who aren’t visually-impaired.
“Participants claim that once they couldn’t see, their other senses, especially hearing, seem much keener. That has such a strong effect on them. They realise that you can go much deeper into an artwork if you also use your other senses,” says Shah.
Participants are especially excited to engage with the sculptures, exploring them with hands. They also try out block printing to better understand some of the different methods that can be used to create art. “Visually challenged people are very used to the tactile experience. Once they become aware of the different materials used to create an art piece, they are much more engaged with it,” Shah says.
One participant suggests burning a piece of paper next time to give a better understanding of the blowtorch method used in one of Jeram Patel’s pieces.At the end of the walk-through, most are overwhelmed. Even the sighted ones have experienced art in a way they have never before. Shah hopes the final message of his work will come from the experience of Binod Behari Mukherjee, a muralist from Kolkata, whose works are on display at the Mumbai exhibition.
“Mukherjee went blind in 1956, but continued painting for decades after he lost his eyesight. The message that we want to send is that a disability should not get in the way of creating or experiencing something beautiful,” says Shah.
“Abhas” is on at DAG Modern, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai, till May 14