Art galleries and museums in India are not the most disabled-friendly in the world. But some prominent venues in our big cities are attempting to integrate art with accessibility by building exhibitions around tactile artworks for the blind, writes Bhumika Popli.
An upcoming retrospective of Sayed Haidar Raza, Traversing Terrains, at Mumbai’s Piramal Museum of Art—which opens on 24 June— will have a whole section devoted to tactile recreations of his paintings, for the benefit of the visually-impaired. Sayali Mundye, who works at the outreach and programming department in Piramal, speaks to Guardian 20 on this initiative. “This is for the first time we have worked on such a concept. We have developed three artworks by Raza to be placed in the tactile section. Bindu Naad is a giant bindu with concentric circles around. That is printed on an acrylic sheet and then lines are etched onto it. So, when you even close your eyes you can feel the concentric circles with your hands. It is basically done to enhance the painting’s shape and form. The other two tactile artworks, titled Eglise and Rajasthan, are made using clay and other materials.”
These tactile versions of Raza’s paintings are produced with the help of a Bombay-based organisation called Access for All. Founded by Siddhant Shah, this company specialises in making heritage sites and artworks more accessible for the disabled. “We develop Braille books and tactile books, which a visually-impaired person can read,” says Shah. “We use embossing, 3D printing and different materials for a 3D image. We also work for art schools and galleries. For a Madhvi Parekh retrospective at Delhi Art Gallery a few months back, the works were designed in a soft-toy format, where you can touch and feel them.”
Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) is also working on a similar concept, of making visual art accessible to the blind. Kishore Singh, head, exhibitions and publications, DAG, says, “While we have been directing such efforts in our galleries, since last year DAG has begun to reach out to museums, schools and other institutions to make art more inclusive. This is just the beginning of what we hope will become a huge movement pioneered by us to ensure equitable opportunity to experience and enjoy art universally.”
Delhi’s National Museum has been a forerunner in this field. A permanent space in the museum, Anubhav Gallery, which has been operational since 2015, includes artworks and facilities designed for visitors with special needs.
Rige Shiba, education officer at the National Museum, takes you around the sculptures, ancient weaponry, coins and printed replicas of paintings displayed at the gallery. Here, Braille and audio description is used to convey the basic details of the artworks. Shiba says, “The current exhibition, India and the World, which features Braille and audio descriptions alongside a few of the exhibits, will become a part of the Anubhav gallery. We started with UNESCO and the NGO Saksham on this project. A few of the objects were chosen by visually-impaired people themselves.”
The Anubhav Gallery has been specially designed to cater to the needs of the visually-impaired. “If you look at the floor around the artworks you will notice that it has been kept unpolished and rough,” Shiba says. “This has been done on purpose. So that even if a visually-impaired person comes to the gallery unannounced, he or she can move around without any help. We also have a separate gate which has a ramp facility for the disabled to enter the gallery. We also have tactile tours around sculptures. At present, we are working on developing a Braille book which would describe the entire collection of the museum, starting with the Anubhav Gallery.”
Roobina Karode, director and curator of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, wants to move beyond the use of Braille and audio guides. She says, “People with special needs have a lot of potential. I would want to put colours and other materials needed for painting in front of the people with special needs, and let them play with it, let them create their own art.”
Karode shares an incident. She says, “Once, the sculptor Valsan Koorma Kolleri, who uses materials such as discarded wood, plaster, concrete and many such things, told me a very interesting story. He said, ‘During a workshop at the fine arts faculty at the University of Baroda, I invited many people to move around and play with my artwork. It had ropes and stones tied to it. But people with vision didn’t even go close to it. Only students from a blind school played with it.’ It is very interesting to know that what actually triggers a response in visually-impaired children, and how art can be a therapy for them.”
In order make art truly accessible for the disabled, a lot more needs to be done. According to Siddhant Shah of Access for All, education plays a key role here, especially education children with special needs. “Special-needs children don’t have art as a subject,” he says. “We are also looking to work with special educators to understand how autistic children can understand Indian art forms.”