Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Changing Lives with Some Paint and a Brush

Changing Lives with Some Paint and a Brush
Syed Ali Mujtaba

The art School Brinda Ashram has been started at the leprosy colony of Bharthapuram in Chengalpattu (near Chennai), in an effort to hone the artistic talents of people who have been affected by leprosy.

The school is the brainchild of Austrian artist, Werner Dornik. Dornik wanted to help people resigned to their fates and living their lives in despondency affected by leprosy.

Dornik had visited many government run leprosy homes and colonies in his life, and was moved by the plight of the residents. He especially was affected by their attitude towards life. He along with Padma Venkataraman, daughter of the former president of India, R. Venkataraman, started the Brinda Ashram Art School in January 2005. Their main goal was to reinvigorate the lives of the inhabitants of these leprosy colonies, and make them feel like what they are, normal human beings.

I knew Dornik from my Vienna days, where I lived with my husband, while he worked, for almost two decades. I stayed in touch with him even after we returned home and settled in Chennai, says Venkataraman, who has been working for the rehabilitation of leprosy-affected people for the past 16 years.

It was on my invitation that Dornik came to Chennai, and it was after he saw these people that he came up with the idea to start an Art School and to change their lives with the brush and paint.� Venkataraman said, adding that she gave the Austrian artist full cooperation to start the program called Give and take.

Most people who have been affected by leprosy had never even touched a paintbrush and paints, so to motivate them to draw and paint was a big task. It was after a lot of persuasion that they were able to get 24 people to attend the painting classes that Dornik and Venkataraman initially attracted them to by teaching meditation.

After every meditation the students were given a lecture and a demonstration on drawing. They also did some exercises in drawing and were taught how to paint. The whole idea was to enthuse life in them and to draw out their hidden and creative talents.

The students learned fast, they correlated themselves with the outside world and expressed their thoughts and ideas through their paintings. In just six months they were able to gain confidence and also learned how to draw beautiful paintings.

We held an exhibition of their paintings in the Allagappa art gallery in Chennai on October 2005. The Tamil Nadu Governor, Surjit Singh Barnala, who is also an accomplished painter, inaugurated the exhibition. The Governor praised the unassuming painters and they were thrilled and motivated by his compliments. The media reports further boosted their confidence even further,� said Venkataraman.

In March 2006, we conducted another exhibition at an Austrian ambassadors house in New Delhi. This event was attended by a host of dignitaries which included Dr Karan Singh, the descendant of the Jammu and Kashmir royal family. Some of the painters were transported to Delhi from Chennai to attend the exhibition; here they freely and confidently conversed with the dignitaries and the media. Each of their painting was sold for Rs 5,000.� Said Venkataraman, proudly.

“Later that same year, we held another exhibition in Vienna. Here four of our leprosy affected artists were flown in from Chennai. There was an atmosphere of dignity about these excellent painters, and each of their paintings fetched more than $200.Venkataraman described further.

As a result of this innovative effort, Basha, Mastan and Uday, all of whom belonged to the fishermen community and used to paint boats, have turned out to be excellent artists. Each of their paintings fetches more than $200 and they are the most popular artists.

Buoyed by the success of these artists there has been a steady stream of leprosy-affected people wanting to join the Brinda Ashram Art School. The next batch of probable up and coming artists comprises of 50 people, all of whom are trying their best to hone their creative skills through paints and paintbrush.

Started experimentally to keep the leprosy affected busy and give them a new leash on life, the Art school now has become a center for vocational training. All praise must go to Werner Dornik, the artist from Austria and Padma Venkataraman for the ingenuity of this idea.

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