On a Monday afternoon, Abhishek sat still in front of rows of paintings of Gaganendranath Tagore in the ‘painting gallery‘ of Kolkata’s Indian Museum. The sunlight from the old and arched window of the gallery was falling on the panels of painting making a shadow-like triangle. Looking at the rows of paintings which are unique specimens of the Bengal School of Art and the light falling in a triangle, Abhishek drew a tram. Although it was not unusual for people to draw trams that stand as an icon to the city’s transport and history the boy’s parents were curious as he had not seen one in the recent past.
These rows of paintings must have appeared like coaches to Abhishek and the light falling on them like a pantograph, explained Arnab Basu, curator and in-charge of the art section of the Indian Museum. “If you stand and just look at the sketches and artworks of children and young adults with autism, you will be fascinated how different their perception of the world is,” Mr. Basu said.
Every Monday when the museum is closed for visitors, children and young adults with autism like Abhishek come to the painting gallery and textile and decorative art gallery of the country’s oldest museum. They look at the exhibits in silence under the watchful eyes of their parents and try to sketch using their perceptive and imaginative powers.
The curator while pointing at another kid Sagnik said that he could only draw straight lines when he started attending the Monday workshop. The boy was having problems bending his wrist and thus, drawing sketches was a challenge. An experiment was devised using a ball and Sagnik now paints different exhibits at the museum. The museum authorities call these workshops ‘Soulful Silence Mondays’ and the number of children and young adults who attend the workshop has increased anywhere between 15 and 20 from only a couple of them every week. Till a few months ago Abhishek and Sagnik faced difficulty sitting still for a few minutes but now they can sketch for hours at the gallery in the Indian Museum.
“Attention span of children increased”
Subhraneel Das is trying to sketch a portrait by Jamini Roy. Jyoti Subhra Das, the boy’s mother says that the Indian Museum gives a good environment to her son, people are very encouraging and there are plenty of subjects to sketch. By the time the sketch is complete, it appears to be an image where he has juxtaposed the imagery of Goddess Durga with a portrait of an ordinary woman. Subhraneel, in the past few months, has also held exhibitions of his sketches and paintings.
According to experts, children with autism show difficulties in learning languages, verbal and non-verbal communication, and social interaction. While the museum authorities are hesitant to make claims about therapeutic effects in these workshops, many parents who bring their children for the workshops said that the attention span of the children has increased and now for hours they can paint or sketch.
“Preserving sketches to hold future exhibitions”
Mr. Basu, who has been instrumental in opening up the museum space to children with autism, said that along with the parents the museum also preserves the sketches and paintings of these children and hopes that in the future they can hold an exhibition. The authorities have introduced a child who is a trained painter to interact and paint with those suffering from autism so that they can communicate and learn new skills. The Monday workshops at the Indian Museum are voluntary and there is no compulsion for anyone to attend.
Arijit Dutta Choudhury, Director of Indian Museum said that there is a very significant improvement in the quality of sketches made by children and young adults over the past few months. “The sketches by them are proof that they are enjoying what they are doing. Museums are public spaces which should be accessible to all and therefore there is no reason why we should not welcome people with physical or mental disabilities,” the director said.
Authorities at the Indian Museum pointed out that only a few days ago a new definition of museums was decided at the 26th International Conference of Museums ( ICOM) general conference held in Prague. The new definition highlights that these spaces should be “accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability”. Referring to this new definition where the focus is on making museums more inclusive, the Indian Museum authorities said that they are on the right path.
“If you stand and just look at the sketches and artworks of children and young adults with autism, you will be fascinated how different their perception of the world is”Arnab BasuCurator and in-charge of art section of the Indian Museum