Werner Dornik’s Bindu Art School uses art to change the lives of people affected by leprosy

At age 17, Werner Dornik was excited about his trip to India; the Austrian had heard fascinating tales about the land’s rich culture and heritage. And while he did get a taste of both, it was the sight of lepers begging for alms at Varanasi that left an impact on him. “It was only after some research that I realised they were suffering from leprosy,” says Werner, a multimedia artist and curator.

His research on leprosy, apart from enlightening him on the disease and the stigma attached to it also brought out the fact that medication for this illness was expensive. Determined to help those with this illness with treatment, the artist held photo exhibitions to raise funds for the cause. However, once the government declared free treatment for such patients, he decided to help them in some other way.

In 2004, Werner approached social activist Padma Venkataraman with the idea of starting an art school for lepers. “Padma identified Bharatapuram, south of Chennai. Out of a colony of 1000 people at Bharatpuram, 700 were suffering from leprosy.”

Werner’s idea was to teach art to lepers so that they can be self sufficient and thus, Bindu Art School was opened in 2005 to those 25 and above. Their oldest student, right now, is 87. As for the name Bindu, Werner says: “Bindu in Sanskrit means a point or a dot. It is the unfolded universe; the start of creation.”

He adds: “When we first began class, there were just two, the following week there were four, by the end of the month there was a queue and we had to stop at 21 students.”

The students are given a monthly stipend as initiative for them to stop seeking alms for a living. While 60 per cent from the sale of their works is given to them, the rest is used to purchase art materials. “Thirty per cent out of the 60 per cent is used to fund the next batch of students.”

For most, it was the first time they were holding a pencil. The excitement and sense of pride they felt when they completed their first work had to be seen to be believed, says Dagmar Vogl, Werner’s wife, an art teacher. “The students are given a certificate upon their completion of five years at the school. This gives them a sense of achievement and pride. These students go on to teach the fresh batch of students at our school,” she says.

The students are given a free reign of the brush. “I don’t go into any technical detail in art and the students are free to paint what they want,” says Dagmar.

The paintings by the students were first exhibited in Chennai and have since travelled across India and gone abroad too.

The works are competitively priced. “When amateur artists can earn a tidy sum from their work, why not our students? I feel their works have more depth as they paint from their heart. Next month four of our school students will partake in an exhibition in Delhi,” says Werner.

Although he says he has no definite goal for the school, Werner hopes to tie up with companies to create calendars, postcards and the like carrying images of the students’ work. “Through this, we hope to promote their work and gather more income for them.”

ROAD TRIP

The students of Bindu Art School will be arriving in the city on February 15 for an exhibition of their works at Alliance Francaise de Trivandrum. “They are all excited. For most it is their first time to Kerala. We have hired a bus and will be taking them to places in and around the city and will also be going to Kanyakumari,” says Werner.

HARMONY OF EXPRESSIONS

Nature is a recurring theme at Pain to Paint, an exhibition of paintings from the Bindu Art School. Like D. Kaliteerthal’s frame, for instance, which shows thatched huts co-exiting with Nature’s green or K. Godavari which takes viewers to a forest where bees gather nectar from flowers. These frames however, come as a stark contrast to B. Ravichandran’s picture which has a black circle in the middle of the frame and abstract images of buildings, vehicles and the like around it. One wonders, if Ravichandran’s work is a dig at globalisation. N. Udayakumar’s painting in shades of grey feels like a tongue-in-cheek look at the Darwin theory as apes are shown in various human poses. The exhibition by 16 students of the school carries each of their names and photos under their work.

The exhibition is on February 15 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Log on to www.bindu-art.at for details or contact Alliance Francaise at 0471 2320666 / 6578808.