“A beautiful body perishes, but a work of art dies not”
— Leonardo da Vinci
Not many know that the great Leonardo da Vinci was dyslexic. This flaw, however, did not come in his way of producing masterpieces like The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and The Vitruvian Man. While da Vinci has gone down in history as one of the greatest painters of all time, many differently-abled artists face a lot of hardships. But such people today have some help at hand in the form of iOTA, a platform initiated by students from the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi and IIT Mandi. “More than sympathy, we are focusing on inspirational stories and trying to get coverage and promote these artists,” says Preena Gadra, a student at SRCC and co-founder of iOTA, which presently has five members. Gadra adds that the team has travelled across India to rope in artists. Launched in 2015, iOTA currently has seven artists on board, and helps them in marketing, building their profiles and conducting exhibitions for them. Here are stories of some of them.
Speechless with wonder: VIPUL MITTAL
WHEN PAINTER Vipul Mittal was two years old, his grandfather noticed something unusual about him. He would laugh only when children around him did, as if he was imitating them. When his mother took him to the doctors, they told her that Mittal was hearing- and speech-impaired. While most others would have been devastated in such a situation, Mittal’s mother Beena Mittal, spurred on by the constant encouragement of the doctors, decided to help her son lead a normal life. When it was time for him to go to school, it was after a lot of struggle that they managed to get him admitted into one. But soon his mother got to know that the teachers would simply ignore her son in the classroom. It was then that she took it upon herself and started teaching him using lip-syncing at home.
Today, the 35-year-old, Delhi-based artist can understand both English and Hindi. “He always wanted to be a businessman, but the brush strokes in his paintings caught his mother’s eye,” says Mittal’s wife Parul Mittal, who curates his paintings and spoke to us on his behalf. “She got him a full-time teacher, who taught him the nuances of art and painting. Later, he decided to apply for admission at the Delhi College of Arts and cleared the entrance in his first attempt in 2006.” But despite making it to the Delhi College of Arts, the road ahead was by no means easy. Parul says he would find it tough to communicate with teachers and did most of his learning by observing the work being done around him.
But he has come a long way since then. From numbers to shoes, there is no single inspiration behind his paintings, his wife says. Mittal, who has a keen interest in computers and technology, also pays a lot of focus on facial expressions and gestures in his work.
On being asked why he chose numbers to be an important element of his work, Mittal gestures to his wife to say that’s because he felt there were different shapes hidden in them, which he wanted to represent through his work.
Having played such a pivotal role in his life as an artist, Mittal’s mother occasionally helps him by speaking on his behalf during meetings or interactions with others.
Looking back at the problems faced by her husband, Parul says society is at fault when it comes to accepting differently-abled artists like Mittal. “Society does not want to accept them. Compared to other countries, there is also a lack of trained teachers for specially-abled students in most institutions,” says Parul.
But things are looking up now, thanks to iOTA, she says. “iOTA has provided a great platform for such artists. In my husband’s case, especially, iOTA has become his voice.”
Hand of glory: SHREEKANT DUBEY
GROWING UP in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh, painter Shreekant Dubey always dreamt of following in his father’s and brothers’ footsteps, and join the Indian Army. But tragedy struck in 1982. Dubey, then 14 years old, got electrocuted when he accidentally touched a live electric cable with his right hand. Doctors told his parents that there was no option but to amputate the arm in order to save him. Since he was right-handed, the first few months of recovery were very difficult, he says. “I was in hospital for six months. Initially, it was really tough to eat using my left hand, but I slowly managed. I also learnt to write with my left hand while I recovered,” recalls 45-year-old Dubey.
His tryst with art started at the age of 14, when after class X he opted for arts instead of science in school. His art teachers were sceptical about Dubey performing well in the subject, but he worked relentlessly. Impressed with his passion and hard work, they soon advised him to pursue a career in fine arts. Dubey then went on to complete his bachelor’s in fine arts from Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith University in Varanasi in 1990 and master’s from Kanpur university in 1993.
It was in the year 1992 that he moved to New Delhi to do research on art for his ongoing master’s. Talking about his fledgling years as an artist, Dubey says getting his paintings exhibited was a tough task. “Back then, Delhi had a handful of art galleries. I was a fervent visitor to all of them and kept requesting them to display my paintings, but to no avail,” he says.
Finally, it was in the year 2002 that he had his first major solo show at the Lalit Kala Akademi. Since then, Dubey, who also teaches at a Delhi administration college near Kamla Nagar, has held more than 20 solo exhibitions across India.
Talking about the plight of differently-abled artists in the country, Dubey says both financial and mental support is required for them to flourish. “One of the basic needs for such artists is adequate financial support. If I don’t have a brush, canvas or colours, the thoughts and ideas in my mind are of no use,” he says, adding, “Along with that, they need a lot of mental support as well. Regular exhibitions should be held for them. People need to understand the thoughts and opinions of these artists and what they are trying to offer to society.”
Speaking of the iOTA initiative, he says, “It is very encouraging to see that the people at iOTA at such a young age have thought about promoting disabled artists. This might be the start of a process where the society finally begins to recognise people like me.”
Best foot forward: SHEELA SHARMA
HER CANVAS depicts emotions such as empathy, love and bonding, supported by recurring characters of birds and fairies. However, the biggest beauty of it all is that painter Sheela Sharma does not use her hands to create these fascinating imageries. Instead, she creates them using her left foot. In fact, the Lucknow-based artist is often described as a ‘foot artist’.
Sharma lost both her arms in a train accident in 1972. She was just four years old then. As she grew up, she didn’t let that handicap deter her from pursuing her dreams in life. With a knack of drawing sketches of people and natural scenes, she started painting with her foot in school by holding objects with her mouth and feet. She completed her graduation with a degree in fine arts from Lucknow university in 1991. And seven years later, she had her first exhibition. “I really like the work and style in MF Husain’s paintings. Amrita Sher-Gil is also one of my influences. Most of my paintings are about women and nature,” says the 48-year-old artist. Training her foot to paint was not an easy process though, Sharma says. She had to follow a proper regimen to allow her foot to paint, as well as perform essential chores. Be it having a cup of coffee, lighting a matchstick or sketching, she does all this and more with utmost deftness today.
One of the basic problems differently-abled artists face, she says, is the time it takes to find a gallery that will exhibit their paintings. Regular artists find slots easily in comparison, she opines. “If we don’t get the requisite art galleries, how will people get to see our work?” she says. Another issue, Sharma says, is the need for the right type of marketing for their work. This is where, she believes, initiatives such as iOTA can go a long way in helping artists.
“When we travel to different cities for exhibitions, the cost and expenses are very high. And then if our paintings don’t sell, it’s disappointing. If we have someone who undertakes the proper marketing for our work, that could be really helpful,” says Sharma, whose last exhibition was at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 2013.
“My next aim is abstract art. Having displayed women, feelings, emotions and nature in my paintings, abstract is a style I want to try next,” she signs off.
In her elements: AMITA DUTTA
STANDING IN the outhouse of her Gurgaon home, 44-year-old Amita Dutta shows us one of her many paintings that adorn the outhouse’s walls. The painting reads: “Welcome to our deaf-friendly classroom. My eye is my ear… my hand is my mouth.” Dutta is a speech- and hearing-impaired artist, who uses unique elements like coffee and bread in her work. Dutta’s mother-in-law Deep, who is translating for the artist, points out another painting. It shows lord Ganesha made with Dutta’s favourite elements. Apart from coffee and bread, she also likes using coloured glass, Deep tells us.
One wonders what prompted Dutta to use, of all things, coffee and bread as the main elements in her paintings? “At the polytechnic institute (where she studied), they would display old work by students. There were many colour paintings on display, but there was one that was very different—it was made of coffee. She went to the teachers and asked them to teach her that technique,” says Deep, adding that she was amazed when she saw Dutta’s first painting using coffee in the year 2008. “When I asked her what was the medium she had used, she proudly indicated ‘coffee’.”
Dutta’s journey as an artist, however, has not been easy. Hailing from the Chandni Chowk area in New Delhi, Dutta studied in a neighbourhood school till class IX. But she had to drop out of school since they could not offer her special faculty for the class X board exams.
After getting married to Deep’s son, Charu, who is similarly challenged and a creative art director at advertising agency JWT India, in June 1993, Deep hired a special tutor who helped Dutta complete her studies from the National Open School.
From then on, things took a turn as she undertook art and craft training, and even pursued a course in interior designing from a polytechnic institute in New Delhi. But it was only after her two children started attending school that she started devoting more time to her ‘hobby’. “She was a bit hesitant initially about whether people would like her work or not,” recalls Deep, adding that Dutta’s first exhibition was in November 2009 at a Diwali mela in a Gurgaon neighbourhood, where she used bread to give a three-dimensional effect to her paintings. Since then, Dutta has been organising exhibitions every year in the months of October, November and December in Gurgaon and New Delhi.
Talking about the iOTA initiative, Deep says, “It’s a noble idea and a positive step forward. More than the monetary benefits, it will help bring a sense of satisfaction in these artists that their art is being recognised.”