Standing in front of the massive photograph, Sushmita Rani’s mouth gaped open at the panoramic view of a fishing net being drawn from a trawler at sea. “It’s beautiful,” exclaimed Rani, a Web designer, adding, “The aerial view makes the picture really special.” Mounted on the walls of the Adil Shah Palace in Panaji, Goa, photographer Navtej Singh’s work on life along the Indian coast was meant to evoke just such a response. On the opposite wall, 10 feet from the photograph was a miniature replica of Singh’s same work titled Off the Coast of Kannur, Kerala. In her first visit to an art show, Sumaira Khan was excited to see the artwork, a tactile reproduction of Singh’s original work. “I feel I had a complete experience,” said Khan, a student at the National Association for the Blind in Panaji, after viewing the work, which was accompanied by a Braille caption.
Thanks to scores of tactile reproductions of original works and Braille captions, the second edition of the recently concluded Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa provided Khan, a visually impaired girl, the same opportunity as Rani to view its artworks. Khan was among the 185 children from three schools for the disabled—many of them visually impaired—which sent their students to the festival. The tactile paintings—made using 3D laser printing, giving different depth and texture to a flat image—easily won over the children.
Fight for fairness
“Usually when we go to some place, we only hear people talk, but here, we had a chance to touch, feel, hear and smell,” said Khan, narrating her experience at the Serendipity festival, which was held during December 15-22, 2017. “I didn’t feel blind,” she said, adding, “It made me feel independent. I hope they do this every year.”
‘Hope’ is a big word when it comes to accessing art in the country. More than a year after the Parliament passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2016, granting equal opportunities, full participation and protection of rights to the disabled, they are still denied equal access to many places, including art events, an important place for cultural participation in society. Sadly in a country, which boasts of deep-rooted cultural traditions and supremacy, when it comes to the disabled, events like the Serendipity festival are more of an exception than the rule.
“Inclusiveness was on the agenda right from the first edition of the festival,” said Taarini Savara, a programme executive at the Serendipity Arts Festival. There were 30 tactile reproductions of artworks with Braille captions at the latest edition of the festival compared to five in the first. The festival displayed tactile maps at all its 15 venues in the Goan capital and also kept Braille books full of information about artists and their works. Wheelchair access, special lifts and toilet signages in Braille ensured that the disabled were not left out.
Along with workshops for people with visual and hearing impairment, and mental disability, the festival also organised events like blindfolded photography, etc, for its visitors to raise awareness about disabilities. “If we are to ensure access to the disabled at all places, we should start with the sensitisation of people without disabilities,” said Siddhant Shah, an accessibility consultant, who worked with the Serendipity festival for its latest edition. At the festival, volunteers tied blindfolds on 18 college students, who were encouraged to take pictures at the venue. “It’s a subtle way to sensitise,” said Shah, whose organisation, Access for All, made the tactile reproductions and Braille captions and signages at its studio in Andheri, Mumbai.
Art & accessibility
Many countries in the world have made art institutions accessible to the disabled through similar interventions. The Louvre museum in Paris encourages disabled visitors through accessible itineraries and tactile tours under the disability law of France. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has programmes for the disabled everyday.
The National Museum in Delhi, which has two lakh objects, already has a gallery for the visually impaired. Called Anubhav Gallery, it opened in 2014 as a pilot project and has 22 works, 19 of them tactile reproductions. The gallery also has Braille captions and audio guides in Hindi and English.
Museums and major art events are also including art education and appreciation for the disabled in their programmes. At the Serendipity festival, there were eight workshops for children with disabilities. “Art is not the domain of only one set of people,” says industrialist Sunil Kant Munjal, the chief patron and founder of the festival. “We want to bring everybody face to face with art and culture. It’s truly inclusive,” he says.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer