A painting workshop connects the hearts and souls of visually disabled and sighted students
Pablo Ramirez Arnol doesn’t do much to establish his presence. The stocky Argentinian painter, dressed comfortably for a humid Mumbai afternoon in a T-shirt, jeans, a wooden hairpin holding his locks in place, enters a room full of youngsters at St. Xavier’s College almost unnoticed. The room has a mix of visually disabled and sighted students, around 20 people. He goes around the room, saying hello: for those who can see him, it is a firm handshake and an exchange of names; for those who can’t, his hands turn gentle, touching their cheeks, their ears, pausing there for a moment, and the words go beyond names, to a joke, a comment of some kind. “When I touch you like this,” he tells them, “I’m writing to your soul.”
The students, from various departments in the college, are here for Divya Drishti, a ‘multi-sensory painting workshop’ organised by the Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology (AIHCA), and the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged in association with the Consulate General of Argentina.
Mr. Arnol explains why they’re here: “We’re living in a big world, with a lot of sounds, things and textures. Today, we’ll use our eyes, our hands, our bodies in silence to connect with the world.” This is not just for those without sight, he tells the students, those with vision can see different colours, but no one has really told them why those colours are where they are. “When you have no sight, you can feel another universe in your mind. We’re here to share those universes.”
Silence precedes every exercise; moments of repose, for contemplation of the experience of sounds, not noise, of textures, not surfaces, of fragrances, not smells. “I can hear students playing basketball outside,” one student says. “How do you know it’s basketball?” Mr. Arnol asks, and as she starts to answer, he interrupts: “Don’t use your hands. Tell me.” The words are critical for those who cannot see. He then plays various sounds for us: a piano, horses galloping, a baby’s laughter.
The students are divided into four groups, each a mix of the sighted and the visually disabled. It’s time to go deeper, to a new exercise. To not just hear sounds but feel things with their hands. Various articles mounted on cardboard sheets — a sponge, a wire mesh, gloves, corn — are passed around. This time, the sighted students are blindfolded, and everyone is helping the other figure out what they are touching. “This has to be a grain,” says one visually impaired student, gingerly touching the corn. “It’s not dirty, don’t worry,” his blindfolded neighbour says. A visually impaired student touches the cardboard, and quickly moves to the pair of jeans his sighted friend is wearing. Laughter follows: “You’re not supposed to touch me!”
Mr. Arnol quietly wanders the room, here sharing in a laugh, there urging another group to “go deep.”
“Feel it,” he says to Shahbaz Khan, a First Year BA student, who has a visual disability; he is struggling to identify the sponge. “Could it be an animal?” “This one feels like a horse,” Mr. Khan says, “Whereas this one [he touches the piece of netting] feels like a crocodile.” The exercise is important for the sighted too, he says, when the exercise is done, “Everyone will now know what it’s like to be blind.”
For the last exercise, sighted students still blindfolded, everyone gets blank sheets of paper, and a palette with two colours, one warm (a red or yellow) the other cool (a blue or black). The colours are mixed with oils: rose, cinnamon, sage, eucalyptus, jasmine and sandalwood. First step: silently inhale the smells, feel the paper and palette, then paint with fingers. “You don’t have to do something here,” Mr. Arnol says. “Feel free. Move your hands, your arms. Enjoy yourselves. Imagine a title for your creation. Be a poet.”
For Janak Doctor, 22 and a Third Year BA (TYBA) student, it was all about “learning about a different sense,” that “you can be creative without having a preconceived notion.” Rahul Gajjal, 20 and visually disabled, and also a TYBA student, says the best part is understanding something without seeing it: “This is outside my comfort zone. I enjoy activities where I can get out there and tell people, ‘ab bataa [tell me what’s to be done].’”
The titles ranged from ‘Flower pot’ to ‘Tree of life’, ‘The house in my mind’, and even ‘Uncertain world.’ Mr. Arnol is pleased: “You are all poets. The idea was to get into your mind, work with your soul.”
It’s was more than learning how to use other senses, says Dr. Anita Rane-Kothare, Associate Professor, and Head of the AIHCA department, “They’re understanding oneness. Some students may not have sight, but they have a vision. Why not explore that?” She likens the experience to that of Gandhari in the Mahabharata, who blindfolded herself to understand the world of her visually impaired husband, Dhritirashtra. “This is very much a part of our culture.”
Dr. Sam Taraporevala, Founder and Director of XRCVC, and Associate Professor and Head of the Sociology Department, says sensory substitution is a powerful way to build inclusion. “The prevailing notion is that art is visual, and therefore out of bounds for the visually impaired. But it’s intrinsic ability that matters. If you give the right channels, everything is possible.”
Later, Mr. Arnol tells us that he has taught art across Argentina to the visually disabled for 17 years. When he touches participants’ hands, he says, it’s his first point of connect. Their faces comes next. He also makes them touch his face. “It’s another world.” As a guide, he is always near his students, directing them, and then, leaving them to explore for themselves. “That is love. If you love somebody, you need to be there. You share your knowledge, and then go.”
On his methods, he says the palettes, the oils, the fruits, they’re all part of his “emergency bag,” which he carries to his workshops. The fragrances help in stirring memories. After all, he says, “When artists paint a tree, they don’t select colours first: they watch it. They always go to the soul of the tree.” And the silence? “It’s the bridge.” To passion, in work and in life. “If you have that passion, you connect with them. When I teach, I connect. We’re not just touching hands. We’re touching hearts and souls.” And, what next? “I need to work more with sighted students. They touch something and immediately go, ‘This is such-and-such.’ But what is it like? What does it remind them of? They could use more poetry. They recognise it, but don’t go within. When you don’t have sight, you can go within.”
That is what he wants to leave with them. And that’s his greatest satisfaction: planting a seed in souls.