Colouring darkness

Beyond sight, colour can be felt, smelled and tasted, say experts who use art to explain the language of hues to the visually challenged 
Colouring darkness

CHENNAI: Acres of light green tea plantations, a field of bright red tulips or your mother’s sari, colours make the world beautiful. While many play with colour, some may never know what it is. ‘How do the blind imagine objects?’ is a much debated question. We took a peek into how the visually impaired perceive colour and how artists explain it to them.

“I think colour is sweet. Lollipops are red and bananas are yellow,” says Laksmi S, visually impaired by birth, a class 3 student at Saint Louis Institute for the deaf and blind in Adyar. Another student from class 8, Carol, associates the taste of particular vegetables to colours. “Green is vazhakkai poriyal, beetroot poriyal is blue and carrot is red,” she says.

Saint Louis Institute is one of many in Chennai that uses taste, smell and texture to help the visually impaired understand colour. At the other end of the spectrum, we have artists, who have expressed their deepest emotions through colour. To imagine a life where colour must be smelled, felt or tasted is an alien concept. How would they describe what colour means to to a blind person?

“I recently displayed my work at an exhibition in February. It was my second one and I had displayed many abstract and fluid art paintings. As people passed by, I was able to explain the emotion behind my paintings to them. Many came and complimented me. Just then, two blind women walked up to me and asked me to explain my painting. I tried my best to explain the turbulent emotions behind my painting,” he said. “They came towards me, touched my face and said that they understood my emotions after running their fingers over my wrinkles. I believe that colour can be felt. It is a combination of touch, smell and temperatures,” says Madhuvandhan M, a professional, budding artist who teaches students between ages five and ten at his home in Annanur. 

Sindhuja Viswanathan, a business analyst who has taught art to the visually impaired has a beautiful way of explaining colour. “Whatever colour you see now is black, the extreme opposite of which is white, that is in fact their colour of the teeth. You can feel the sunshine on your face, when it is bright and when your eyebrows goes up, you will feel the heat of it which is bright yellow colour. When you feel the burning flame, it is as hot as red colour. When you feel the air given by the trees, the bark is brown and the leaves will be in green. The rainfall from the sky is transparent which has no colour but the sky is blue, which is a mild warm colour. This is how I have been able to describe colour to the children I have worked with,” she says. 
Certain colours like lilac or teal might be difficult to explain, mostly because those are not hues that you come across every day. Sudharsan Ramalingam is an IT employee who paints for charity and passion. According to him, one can only describe the object and associate it with a colour. “Colours like pink may get a little difficult to explain, but by describing a rose to a blind person, we can help them connect the colour to the object. We can explain that the sky is blue and maybe they will connect it to something as big as the sky and call that blue. The blind can see in a whole new language, which may be different from ours but will help bring out the artist in them,” he says.

An IT professional and street artist, Vigneshkumar is aware that we cannot explain what we know about colour to the blind. “We have to explain it to them using the sensations they have,” he says. Some associate colours to memory and some to a particular object or situation. Colours can evoke a memory or a sensation too. “Colour can be a feeling or a memory. Because colour has temperatures, one can make them feel different colours and relate them to temperature. Some can even relate colour to sounds of a drum beat. Faster beats could be the colour red which has the highest frequency in the visible spectrum. Textures like wrinkled leaves could be related to brown. The art that the blind come up with will be very different from what we can imagine.”

The next time you look at a painting, try imagining what the colour would taste like. What it would feel like under your fingertips with your eyes closed. Colours need not only be seen. They can be felt, smelled and tasted too.

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