Designer Sandhya Raman taps into the abilities of people with autism to create wearable art

This year World Autism Awareness Day (April 2) is marked with colour and design. Young designers from among the community will demonstrate the far-reaching potential of their imagination and artistic talent. Their pastel pinks, magnetic magentas, fiery oranges, screaming yellows, midnight blues, moonlight whites (and all the shades in between) will mingle with the whirls and swirls, sweeps and leaps of their brushes and flow gently down the catwalk as ready-to-wear apparel.

Yes, the work of people with autism will now be available off the shelf, transformed from splashes of creativity into stylish dresses, tunics, beach wear, palazzo pants and stoles, not only to raise awareness about the disability but to create a special label that would be a tribute to their abilities and an opportunity for their livelihood.

“They have a truly unique sense of putting together colour, others are unable to do it the same way,” says designer Sandhya Raman as she readies an entire collection of garments printed with their paintings constituting her special label, ‘Nurture’. During a trip to an exhibition put up by some of Delhi’s special schools, Sandhya found cards and art work by children and adults with autism. She saw in them immense possibilities and decided to turn them into what she terms ‘wearable art’.

An alumnus of the National School of Drama and Founder Director of her own venture Desmania, Sandhya has always shunned mass production. She runs the no-nonsense label ‘No Fuss’, a series of which creates customised clothing with an endeavour to connect the trends of current times with the specific history, geography and culture of the fabric that is being used. Working only with natural fabrics — cottons and silks — her designing has subtle surprise touches, is detailed and wearable from the word go. She does shirts, kurtas, mix and match ensembles and, of late, several variations in trousers, tops and skirts for the with-it generation.

A designer for over two decades, she has made her mark in creating classical costumes for dancers that contemporise the performance as well as keep it in its historical context. She has closely worked with Jonathan Hollander of Battery Dance Company, New York, and also designed costumes for well known dancers such as Anita Ratnam, Jai Kishan Maharaj, Mallika Sarabhai, Sonal Mansingh, Aditi Mangaldas, Geeta Chandran, Priya Venkatraman, Namrata Pamnani and Ragini Chandrashekhar. Costumes in the award-winning short fiction film “Totanama” directed by Chandita Mukherjee were also by her.

However, for the ‘Nuture’ collection with paintings by people with autism, Sandhya has created products that match the current era. To suit young tastes, weather conditions and technique, she is using light crepe fabric that bursts into a riot of colours. “The collection is soft, flowing and hundred per cent silk. The fabric gets this character by the way the silk yarn is twisted. Here I have combined the special abilities of autistic individuals with modern-day designs. In short, it is wearable art that can be taken to the market,” explains Sandhya who has earlier worked with the visually impaired and helped Arunim, the marketing federation for people with developmental disabilities, started by the government's National Trust.

And why does she choose to work with these special groups? Sandhya says over the years she has observed children with disabilities and watched them growing up. “I have seen my friends’ children and how they handle them...the pains the parents go through. Once a friend’s autistic child pointed to people and said, “They think I have a problem, actually they have a problem.’” And that set her thinking. “Yes, each of these children and adults is unique and has unique abilities. By tapping them we can offer people with autism support and sustenance.” Fifty per cent of the proceeds from her label will go to the organisation or foundation that engages with autism and provides the art work.

Going forward, Sandhya hopes that autistic children and their parents will form groups (some already have) and will work on more and more creations. “We can keep adding new ideas,” she says, hoping that the April 5 catwalk at her showroom with “no models, only ordinary mortals” will keep the wheel continuously turning.

Parents, on their part, are thrilled with the prospect. They see in it not only livelihood potential but an activity that will engage as it excites. “Bless those who see life through a different window and those who understand their view,” they say quoting from an autism website.