At the India Art Festival, the most original work is by a group of visually impaired children
Shivani Bharadwaj, who teaches visually impaired children to draw, is showcasing their works at the India Art Festival in Delhi | #FWeekend
The third-row aisle at the India Art Festival at the Thyagraj complex ends in a binary of sorts. Though the two stalls that make up the corner are equally crowded, one sharply posits photographic memory as art while the other revels or in this particular case, rebels in the complete absence of it. Booth 77 is an oddity, a David amongst the Goliaths of the reputation-and-reference preceding work at the festival. Everything else seems wrapped and ripped to obscure, yet sell. There is to an extent, at times even absurd, obfuscation of the artist, a disappearing role in the final act. Context-less, largely nameless, hangars for vacancy, stall after stall breaks with a fist of complacency whatever quick-wheeled ideas of art you have entered the Thyagraj complex with. Honestly, the Delhi metro has done a better job of engaging.
All of that until you reach Booth 77, where Shivani Bharadwaj stands alone, accompanied by a man who frames and wraps pictures on the go. Each work, each drawing in the booth has been created by a visually impaired child. This is Inside Me, a personal mission that Bharadwaj undertook some years ago — the mission to teach the blind to draw. “I have seven students under my tutelage right now. It is very difficult to get all of them interested. It takes a great amount of time. Even a straight line or connecting two dots to start with, is a challenge,” she says. Bharadwaj started Inside Me only recently, to give the effort a name, and perhaps a channel to be identified with. She has been teaching her students for almost half a decade now at the Institute for The Blind in Lajpat Nagar.
In the company of high-on-craft but low-on-ideas art, Bharadwaj’s assembly of scribbles and scrabbles though odd, is easily the most original. “The kids have no memory. You have to understand that some of them have never seen a circle or a square. Forget more complex objects. To them the only shapes that matter are the ones they can feel or touch. So you can’t expect them to draw maybe a dog or something like that for years. That will take time. Right now, they want to draw flowers or watches or in one case [here Shivani pulls out an unframed picture], a cellphone”.
Art has always created value for itself by setting itself at a distance. There is a direct correlation at times, between the obscurity of a piece and the value many see it might fetch. There is really no theorising what Bharadwaj’s pupils do. But she apparently understands treatment more than most at the India Art Festival. Each piece is accompanied by the name of the child and his or her favourite subjects to draw, a technique they might use and so on. It is personal and acutely insightful in contrast to the name-and-tag technique that is clichéd in the art world and abundantly visible at the venue. “Dhiraj, who is very young, paints with his cheek resting on the paper. By that he can feel the grain of colour and can sense where his lines are going. All of them use their own personal way to measure distance, or approximate a shape,” Bharadwaj says.
Unfortunately, it is perhaps natural that a booth like Inside Me will be taken as a charity auction or a prop to ask for donations. Bharadwaj — while engaged in conversation with me — has already rejected one willing donor. “They (the children) don’t need money. They don’t need someone’s charity. People have been coming up to me and asking me to take Rs 100 or Rs 500. But that is not what I am here for. I am here to tell their story, through what they are drawing. To me, this is art. I’m not going to put up a donations' box here. You can only buy something, but you cannot donate,” she says. As the pace picks up, people have been queuing to hear Bharadwaj’s story and that of her group of young artist. If anyone wants to buy a drawing, she simply picks up a frame and hands it over. The price is chosen by the buyer. A couple of college students have paid Rs 10 as well, she tells me. Within the annals of hyper-textual, cultural inflation the relative liberality and earthiness of a simple struggle, of light against darkness, is both refreshing and absorbing. There is, perhaps, no art bigger than the one considered impossible.
Not too far from the stall, one of Bharadwaj’s own works is being showcased. But she hardly cares for it. “I was a journalist. I worked for some time. But then I found peace and satisfaction in doing this. When I go into the class every week, and someone tells me that they want to draw a butterfly or a bus it gives me a sense of joy to tell them they can,” she says. In essence, Bharadwaj only affirms what is humanly possible. The possibility that art might return to the field of human struggle, and this time, not merely circle it with a disposition to highlight, but emerge from it, like rain does from the clouds, and imagination does from darkness.