Talent Galore: Disabled Artists celebrate, resist and revolt
By Avinash Shahi
Art is immaculate; it germinates out of experience. Devaluing the identity of disabled people and tagging them as abnormal or super-human are sufficient causes to provoke them to express agony and emotions through their actions. For instance, Ashwin Karthik’s poem represents what most disabled people’s views of themselves in India is likely to be:
My eyes can’t see but I dream,
My lips don’t speak, I want to scream.
I can’t move my feet but my mind is in no prison,
The strength of my will is second to none.
To fall, I will never be shy,
My eyes, will not leave the sky.
I face my fear without a blink,
I know my hope will never sink.
The dark is no more a scare
Of light, I will find my share
Some may say I am a sin
But I know I can win.
There are many disabled artists in India who echo the sentiments expressed by Ashwin. These artists challenge the entrenched inhibitions that lie in people’s minds about disabled people’s abilities. Pankaj Namdev, who was struck by polio in his childhood, mesmerized judges in a popular television reality show with his soulful singing. Bhavesh Patel, who is totally blind, stunned everyone by capturing photographs of one of Bollywood’s famous actresses for a perfume advertisement on his iPhone. Tumpa, a 16-year old blind girl, is no less a celebrity today. She studies in Ranchi and has won the hearts of Bollywood biggies such as Shreya Ghoshal and Ankit Tiwari with her superb singing. They have offered to provide Tumpa a big platform in Mumbai. Karamjit Singh has unique talent. He generates the sound of a crowd at a cricket match and here is a must watch video of the same. These artists have broken the glass ceiling and proudly pursue their passions without any patronage.
Most of these artists hail from modest families. They belong to villages and small towns of rural India where the luxury to understand and appreciate art is too costly to afford. In such settings, where disability and poverty are inextricably intertwined, families of disabled people bear severe constraints to manage even two square meals a day for their survival. They lack the means to foster the passions of their disabled artist family members. Despite the absence of conducive environments that are essential to groom their artistic capabilities, disabled enthusiasts tirelessly practice and produce memorable performances. Moreover, India is known world over for hosting literature festivals, music festivals, Urdu Mushayras and Hindi poetry conventions. However, the neglect of disabled artists in such cultural confluences is glaring. Such indifference towards disabled artists provokes them to seek alternate platforms to exhibit their talent. They are thus waging a silent artistic revolution and cultivating disability culture in the country.
Blind people read and write in the Braille script invented by the late Louis Braille. Likewise, deaf people use sign language to communicate. Surprisingly, non-disabled people are illiterate in both these vibrant and thriving languages. I studied in a specialized residential school for the blind and have first-hand experience of witnessing creativity of blind students. As a notebook and pen are the lifeline for sighted people, so is Braille for the blind. It empowers them to express their emotions with freedom. Students decorate Braille sheet by embossing dots in distinct ways which attracts the attention of the reader. Blind couples, especially those who reside in the smaller towns, inscribe love letters in Braille which they keep confidential for years. Not only this, students depict boats, airplanes and other artifacts by using craft on a Braille sheet. Blind people thus are inseparably attached to the Braille script. It has not only opened the vista of knowledge for them, it even fills their lives with pride and a sense of independence. Ideas that gestate in their minds are imprinted in Braille. Unfortunately, the absense of a disability museum renders these precious memorabilia redundant and homeless.
This year, the United States of America is celebrating 25 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). India is also poised to celebrate 20 years of the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 in December 2015. However it is a sad commentary that successive governments in India, be it at the centre or at the state, have remained indifferent towards promoting a culture of art among disabled artists. After the enactment of the PWD Act in 1995, the Indian state has instituted several awards for disabled people for their public service and entrepreneurial skills. Nonetheless, it is yet to establish any award for disabled artists.
Finally, what is noteworthy is that amidst manifold adversities, disabled artists have grown more defiant. They find solace in artistic pursuits. Sadly, owing to lack of adequate opportunities, their enormous efforts and hard work go unrecognized. Unlike non-disabled artists, who make huge monetary gains from their artistic performances, disabled artists find it difficult to pursue their passions professionally. One could hope that with the establishment of a disability museum, India would embark on a paradigm shift to preserve and protect a rich disability history.
Avinash Shahi is a doctoral candidate at Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU, who submitted his MPhil Dissertation on the the topic, ‘Persons with Disabilities Act 1995: A Study in Delhi’. His areas of interests include but are not limited to disability policies and media representation of disability issues.
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