Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A unique ability

At the ‘Outsider Art’ exhibition held at Fort Kochi recently, autistic youngsters displayed their remarkable artistic talent

Photos: Rohit Anand in front of his work; Ajai Vadakkath (centre) with a few artists; artist Pranav Nair's work, 'Why I Love Google'. Pics by A. Sanesh    

By Shevlin Sebastian

The tall Rohit Anand, an 18-year-old autistic boy strides into the Dravidia Gallery in Fort Kochi and goes straight to his exhibit. There are three paintings side by side, all of them acrylic on canvas. In the first, titled, ‘I want’, there is an image of him in the forefront, head bowed, eye closed, and just where his head is, there is an image of a brown-skinned young girl, with black hair, prominent lips and flower-type earrings. She is looking ahead expressionlessly. Just next to her is another image, showing the back of her head.
This is Manasi,” he says, pointing at the girl. “She used to come to ‘Sense Kaleidoscopes’ (an autism school in Bangalore) where I study. Now she is not there. I miss her. I like Manasi a lot. We used to play snakes and ladders.”

Listening to him is Akshayee Shetty, the founder-director of ‘Sense’. “Rohit has been thinking about girls,” she says. “Children with autism have the same needs as teenagers everywhere. If the youngster is thinking of wanting a girlfriend, there is nothing wrong with that.”  

In the next work, Rohit is again in the forefront, his mouth opened in anger, his teeth bared, rage in his eyes, while above him is a mirror that has been broken in places. “On November 2, 2015, it was my friend Ayush Bambani’s birthday,” says Rohit. “He was crying a lot. The sound angered me. So I broke a mirror.”

And in the third work, titled ‘Voices’, his face is distorted, in the manner of a Salvador Dali painting. There are word blurbs all around, with angry messages in it. “I feel very upset when my mother or somebody else scolds me,” says Rohit.

These paintings were displayed at the ‘Outsider Art’ exhibition where 64 works by 38 artists were on display. The show, held recently, was organised by former Navy commander and art lover, Ajai Vadakkath, and his wife Priti, who are parents of a 17-year-old autistic boy.

The idea for the exhibition came to Ajai when in July last year he came across the works of Ayush Bambani and was impressed. Ajai has an idea about art since Priti is an artist while his brother Vivek Vilasini had been a featured artist in the first edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. As a result, Ajai had been a volunteer at the inaugural Biennale and became friends with co-founder Bose Krishnamachari.

So he sent the images to Bose and the latter was impressed. Then Ajai said, “Bose, it's about time these kinds of works are brought to the mainstream. Can we get the support of the Biennale Foundation?”

Bose immediately agreed. Then Ajai, who is part of many autism groups sent out the message to parents in Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad that he was looking for artworks. “There is another huge autism group in Yahoo groups, more than 4000 parents,” says Ajai. “I mentioned clearly that this is not a sympathy exhibition. It is merit-based. In fact, Bose told me, ‘I will look at the art, I will not look at the level of disability, nor the age. I don’t want to be biased’.”

The exhibition has many impressive artworks, with children of varying disabilities producing some remarkable work, mainly in the abstract style.

The 33-year-old Swaminathan, one of the oldest participants, sees an image but he only knows how to represent it through lines. Not surprisingly, his work, ‘Chennai Central’ shows the railway station through lines.

On the other hand, Pranav Nair prefers to use triangles, rectangles, circles and squares. Ayush likes dogs, so he draws the animal all the time. Some of the other artists who participated included Sidharth Murali, Sachin Joshi, Indubala, Sakshi Chawla, Kalash Kariappa, Sanjay, Tanisha Lahiri, Melvina and Kajal Ashar.

Meanwhile, as Bose walks around on the inaugural day, he shakes his head and says, “They have a genuine talent. I did not know that so many of them were so artistic. This is the first of its kind for the Biennale Foundation. We would like to do similar exhibitions in other cities.”

Ajai nods his head happily when he hears that and says, “It is heartwarming when talented autistic children are able to express themselves through their art.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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