On the thinnai (porch) overlooking the bright red walls of artist V. Viswanadhan’s house in Cholamandal Artists’ Village, Beanie the dog is in deep slumber. In a few minutes, the quiet of Chennai’s soporific summer day will be broken by the shuffle of excited feet. “She won’t do anything, she is sleeping,” 10-year-old Noel’s mother reassures him. Beanie lifts her head, registers the voices, and goes right back to sleep.
Noel, a big smile on his face, rushes down the cool, stone steps, straight to his wooden bench. The morning session of ‘A Brush with Art’ for children with special needs has begun. Mala Chinappa and Priya Badri, facilitators with the art project, hand Noel a tray with maida, water and colours, help him put on his apron, and push the bench closer to his table.
On the other side of the table, 14-year-old Vishwa is humming a tune to himself (‘Row, row, row your boat’) as Jyotsna Srinivasan, the other facilitator and former art and craft teacher at The School KFI, hands him some paints. For the next 45 minutes, the duo have the freedom and space to explore the colours as they want to — through painting, through materials, through graphic art. In this little red-tiled outhouse, with a sleeping Beanie outside, children express themselves unfettered by the circumscribing labels of ‘autism’ or ‘therapy’.
And this year, their art travelled to Kerala to be part of the Kochi Muziris Biennale’s ‘The Outsider’ show. “When we began in 2015, our vision was to create a space for children on the spectrum, usually going from one therapy session to another, to explore without conditions,” explains Chinappa who is also the parent of an autistic child. “The validation we received from the Biennale and a private exhibition we held in Cholamandal has been extremely heartening. Especially when visitors told us that if we had not told them that the artists were autistic and in their early teens, they would have assumed this was the work of professionals.” Vishwa was one of the artists whose works were selected for the Biennale, and he even sold one of them. His mother, waiting outside, beams with pride. “We were very happy,” she says.
Many children like Vishwa are defying labels and categories and stepping out into the public arena with confidence, choosing to speak their truth through the only language devoid of barriers — the language of the arts.
On April 2, World Autism Awareness Day Akshaya Nathan and Amruth Sundaresan, both non-verbal, wrote a poem titled ‘I Am Another You’,where they said: ‘We are young men trying to bring love into the world in the most unimaginable ways… one might commonly refer to the three of us as being on the Autism Spectrum.’ There is a gentle defiance in how they push the boundaries, and a pinch of humour too: “Please don’t sympathise or deify us; we are regular boys and girls who also like to laugh and play pranks,” Sundaresan, now 21, told me almost five years ago, typing out the words on a keyboard.
Poetry, short stories, plays, novels are all made possible in this open space where stereotypes are broken. Gita Bhalla, who has been working in the field of special education for close to four decades, and is the principal of the Kaleidoscope Learning Centre in Chennai, recalls an incident when her own assumptions were proven wrong. “We once found a half-empty bottle of phenyl, and with our phenyl-loving child close by we assumed the worst. We got busy trying to flush his mouth. I had been teaching him the alphabets, the basics, cat-pat-rat words. And he asked for a keyboard and typed out: ‘I am not stupid, Gita. I only smelt the phenyl’ and all I could say was ‘You know how to write?’ and he said yes.”
Says Puja Bhalla, Gita’s daughter and a psychologist and curative educator at Chennai-based V-Excel Educational Trust, who has been facilitating communication with the children for close to 12 years now: “While in a regular conversation I am also involved, when it comes to their creative work, I usually step back, as I am more interested to see where the story is going. I want to give them the space to reveal themselves and be themselves. And that is very liberating.”
Deep and profound
A few months ago, at the launch of Mumbai-based crochet artist Sowmya Sarathy’s ‘Story in a Box’, I understood just how much potential this kind of liberation held. For a story in a series of hand-crafted books with crochet characters inside a box, Sarathy chose to collaborate with 21-year-old Nathan. “I wasn’t sure if Akshaya would be able to write a simple children’s story because sometimes their writing can be deep and profound,” says Sarathy. “So I gave him a few specs — word count, themes, elements. I received a draft the next day and I was speechless. His tale Little Barry Beetle Beard just blew me away. I normally crochet from existing patterns but none of them matched the soul of his story; so it was a new birthing process for me to be able to design and create the beetle and the rest of the kit from scratch, a process that took six months.”
During the launch, for a private audience of 25 people, Nathan sat on the floor, hiding his head behind his knees, his large eyes peeking out once in a while, his ears always listening and his fingers tracing a doodle on the floor. When Sarathy finished narrating the story, creating for a brief moment a kindergarten classroom, there was a short pause before everyone erupted in applause. Nathan instinctively closed his ears — but that pause, thick with emotion, was a reminder to all of us of just how powerful an inclusive society can be. “The exciting thing is that we learn to give and receive, sense another, push another, perhaps at times learn to adjust to another. The product and finale was great, the audience was good, and the process touched me. It was also the first time I was earning as a writer; I felt very excited to be a man of my own destiny,” types out Nathan, who is now working on his first audio-book.
With stories and storytelling devices, the very fabric of listening has changed. A month ago, I received an email from 20-year-old Arvind Karthik. He had written his first novel and asked if I could help edit it. His letter also had a caveat; that I should “read with my heart and not my head”.
“When I write, I am not thinking of autism. It is the only space I feel complete; I feel a seed, which lies sleeping in my heart, can now bloom into a thought, a word. Most times when I write, like for my book, it is an inner struggle I am experiencing. I am not concerned with technicalities. I am writing as catharsis, not a figment of imagination. I am writing to struggle to understand myself, and I experience that in writing, I am safe, I can be free,” says Karthik.
In this click-baity culture, Karthik’s book and the kind of reading it required was like rediscovering the slowness of breath (“It’s not for publication,” he constantly reminds me), and I felt like an ice-skater who had chanced upon a frozen lake.
Says Chinappa, “Earlier, I would think I was older and wiser and more skilled and creative, but all of these notions are broken when you see the way they create and explore. Viswanadhan always says that whenever he watches them paint, he feels this is what true art is, because there is no agenda — which gallery to approach or how much to sell for. They finish and walk away.”
Sabaresan Sekar, 22, agrees. The resident philosopher, researcher and poet, who is with Swabhimaan Trust for Autism, says they are not just “playing around with words”. He recently completed his first non-fiction book titled The Illiterate Musings of a Philosopher where every chapter links attributes to an object, for instance, silence to a comb. “When I want to express something, I experience a clear purpose and I learn to collect the words. I believe it takes clarity to know which words describe my intention point blank,” he says.
And just like that, the night sky full of stars that are light years away shows us that on the other side is a blue sky with the sun shining bright. Says Gita: “One of my favourite poems is by Shiva Sachien called ‘Look Inside’ where he says the human mind is so powerful that the story you tell is what matters, however you want to make it sound, and I do believe that. Ten years ago, I would have referred to children with disability with a plural, I was treating them as one-size-fits-all, but now I know each one is an individual. Their stories, in whichever form they choose to tell them, really allow us to meet the person. And then, to listen to them.”
The writer edits an art magazine.