Art has often been a canvas for rebuilding one’s sense of identity. For an exploration of that idea, Austrian multimedia artist and curator Werner Dornik and Indian social activist Padma Venkataraman decided to utilise art as a tool for social engagement and empowerment. Founded in the year 2005, the Bindu Art School employs art to change the lives of cured patients affected by leprosy. By painting pictures and selling them, the students/artists are encouraged to attain financial independence without the discrimination of receiving alms.
Ostracised, turned away for treatment, being cured and experiencing a life shunned from society; persons affected with and cured from leprosy often find their lives derailed and emptied from purpose and enthusiasm. Encountering this firsthand, Dornik, who was then travelling through India as a teenager, was struck with an idea. By the turn of the new century, he had conducted many exhibitions and multimedia shows and used the funds he raised to uplift two leprosy colonies in Khandwa and Indore in Madhya Pradesh.
Four years later, he reached out to Padma Venkataraman, a social activist who worked in the leprosy colonies of Tamil Nadu, asking her to find out if the people were interested in painting. He had just one condition – they would have to stop begging.
Cut to the present day. Over the course of 15 years, these artists have conducted over 62 exhibitions within India as well as internationally.
A long struggle from the time she was thirteen, “I left everything I’d ever known for treatment and lived an estranged life without a shoulder to cry on. I lived as a outsider, a native Telugu speaker in Tamil Nadu. One day I was asked to come try my hand at drawing, I didn’t know it was going to change my life. Ten years later I am who I am because of this initiative,” says V Radha about her life before the art school.
“They’ve come a long way. I remember meeting them in old age homes, lamenting their state and pain. However, once they started painting, all these experiences of reflecting on pain has turned into questions and thoughts about colour schemes,”Padma
Due to the poverty-stricken state and social stigma they face, socioeconomic rehabilitation programmes as initiatives from the government as well as NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are provided. However, these are barely sufficient. Microcredit and skill training uplift and provide a viable alternative to begging. Padma strongly believes in the social responsibility to integrate them into society, instead of needlessly segregating them as persons for charity. “They deserve the opportunity to be a whole and respected unit of a region’s fabric,” she remarks.
“Society treats people with leprosy as burdens and most people are insensitive about their appearance. But I wanted to bring their inner beauty to the fore through art. They are in no way different from the rest but they are almost always isolated. To overcome the pain and years of neglect, they really need to divert their attention to working hard.”
The artists age range between 30 and 92 years. Most are illiterate and from different religious traditions.
The South Indian womenfolk are largely skilled in laying patterned designs outside their homes – rangolis, as a part of their quotidian routine in the mornings. “If they can do this, they can easily adapt this sense of creativity on paper,” quotes Padma on Dornik’s idea.
Encouraging them to begin with this sense of design, the Bindu Art school encourages their students to draw from their own experiences and concepts of design rather than teaching them how to mechanically make art. “Since we had called artists from Europe to train them, they wholly rejected the Indian method of teaching them how to draw. The students sit for ten minutes in complete silence before they begin to experiment with a colour on canvas. No two paintings are the same, because the expression of their creative thinking are unique to their artistry,” says Padma.
“We initially started experimenting with only black and white shades, and were given complete creative freedom to sketch or paint what we wanted to. They encouraged us to think differently about shading and depicting real objects as art,” narrates Balachandran.
Initially an auto electrician, he was forced to move away after the disease and joined an old age home. After meeting Padma, who offered this art course, he explains how he solely took it up because he thought it would at least be a distraction from the redundant lifestyle he led. “Once I joined, however, my interest piqued. Slowly they gave us more colours and we watched our work grow in unfamiliar ways. The most important rule we were taught was to not copy artwork or ideas as they were. We had to bring our own imagination to the forefront and experiment. Within a year, I managed to complete my training and try my hand at painting abstract object works and layering colours as I imagined,” says Balachandran as he smiles.
The journey for most of these artists, however, did not begin with complete enthusiasm. “During rehabilitation I was asked if I wanted to try the Bindu Art School instead of lying helpless in bed, but I contended saying I wasn’t an artist. I was persuaded to at least try after a year and just sketch something I felt like. I kept stalling for months, after which my friend actually dragged me straight to the school, without even asking if I wanted to do this. A paper and black and white paints near me, I began a new life,” Ravichandran’s voice breaks and he pauses to take a moment. “The first four of my paintings were sold in the first display and it created a new sense of purpose and excitement in me. This journey has taken me to so many places that I never imagined I would ever visit and be appreciated for the
work I do,” he recounts.
Dornik and Padma believe that art is a powerful medium of expression. “As an artist, I know that the beauty within is what gets reflected on the canvas,” says Dornik. The students of different age groups are trained in different forms of art like folk and abstract. While 40% of what they earn from the shows goes into the running of the school, the rest reaches the students, in the form of a stipend. The idea is to financially support them, and discourage them for resorting to begging.
Paintings are either sold in exhibitions or to visitors that explore the school. At the end of the year, the school cumulatively accounts for all the money made and distributes it equally among all the students/artists. This is solely done to prevent a copy-paste mentality with creative arts that sell better.
Four artists including Malligai recently concluded an exhibition in Vienna. “We are treated with respect and valued as people. We would not have been able to live this life as patients cured from leprosy if not for this initiative.” She beams as a tear trickles down her face.
“We thought the sense of isolation and estrangement was the life we were going to live. For almost eleven years now, I have found that there’s more than a sense of belonging and happiness we feel through the art we’ve learnt,”
Malligai, one of the artists
With this unique initiative, the Bindu Art School reorients the treatment and experiences of this community, a shift from being at the receiving end of monetary benefits to being a part of a creative process that earns them financial and social value. The artists draw from their own intense life experiences and use unique personal qualities to produce impressive paintings. Storytellers in their own right, they look to create newer kaleidoscopes of colour in the future.