BHUBANESWAR: This year, the festival of holi was different for the children of the Institution for the Blind in New Delhi. The children, most of whom have never known what colours are like, were found playing with gulaal of all hues, aware about the colours they were using on each other. Making their lives colourful is a young advertising professional, who, with the use of Braille, created special packs of gulaal for these visually challenged children.
With a leaning to the social form of art, Swasti Ranjan Ray, the ad man behind the mission was itching to do something different and focused on the differently-abled. This made him try out options using the skills he had acquired with his degree in Fine Arts, and his zeal to work for the deprived. So was born ‘eyecan’ in 2012, a voluntary project initiated with the purpose of helping visually-impaired students engage with art.
“The project is titled after the unique product that I crafted to enable the visually impaired to recognise basic colours with the help of Braille printed caps attached to crayons. I have also made a drawing board with a mesh net as the base so that when the students use the crayons on paper, they can feel the texture of what they have coloured,” explains Swasti.
‘Eyecan’ was begun in collaboration with the Institution for the Blind, Amar Colony, Delhi, where Swasti organised workshops for about three months for visually-challenged students in the age group of 7-14. They were taught the use of the ‘Brailled’ crayons. The workshops concluded with an exhibition of 15 chosen works, and the proceeds from the exhibition went to the school.
The Eyecan project began when the professional realised that unlike many other countries, art is not being taught in blind schools in India. “One normally sees these children studying language, social studies, science, maths, music and yoga, and even playing cricket. Since I have an artistic bent of mind, it struck me, ‘why not art?’,” says Swasti, who is a creative director at the advertising firm JWT, Delhi.
Seeds of social communication
Born and brought up in Rourkela, a small town in Odisha, Swasti, post schooling joined BK College of Arts and Crafts in Bhubaneswar to pursue and develop a creative ability in communication design. “The course was not easy, given the constraints of studying in a college where there was always a struggle to create and achieve any kind of work; there were no computers, cameras, tables and benches or any modern techniques used to come up with modern results. Everything was done manually in a precise, systematic manner, understanding the core aesthetics to draw, paint, design and create something new. So this phase of my life moulded me to feel, sense and analyse all attributes of communication design, especially the social part. And there I developed an interest to know and explore more about social inventions and communication,” he explains.
Initial steps on Eyecan
Narrating the first step, Swasti says he came up with a basic water painting strip with Braille identifiers in June 2011 and named it ‘colorise’. He experimented on it with someone who was from the Braille Union of India. “It was very difficult for the person to hold the brush with the strips, which ended in confusion and failure. Based on his suggestions about technical details and enhancement of Braille printing in India, I broke down the colours into CMYK (a colour model used in printing, consisting of the basic colours blue, red, yellow and black), and used Braille-printed strips on the pastels. I was ready to test it again, and this time at Institution for the Blind. The idea of a painting implement for the visually challenged seemed really impressive, until most of the students felt the Braille embossed on paper over the pastels got pressed down and flattened easily and were thus not readable. The vice-principal of the institute then suggested that I try a special German Braille printing technique, which is done using a ‘Tiger braille’ machine, which embosses rubber over thick paper. The vice-principal even gave me a sample from a science book they were using. He suggested that I get the printing done at Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Blind, Mumbai. I approached the place and that was the time I began to learn more about the global techniques in educating the visually impaired and their prospects.”
Swasti's friend from Japan Miran Rin introduced him to Chiba School for the Blind, Tokyo and he was called to do a small workshop using a Japanese colouring implement for the visually impaired called Mitsuro Pen. Mitsuro is an electronic implement that is heavy and uses wax strips, which are melted into wax ink and its tactile borders are used to identify the shapes of the drawings made with it. “I wondered about its use in India, as it starts to melt above 29 degrees celsius and would be too expensive to install. There the blind school was like an art college, filled with sculpture and paintings, and the subjects taught included drawing, painting, ceramic art, culinary sculpture, paper craft and tactile graphics, along with regular subjects. So I pondered why art was so important for them and not for us back in India. But I also introduced Eyecan there and everyone was happy with the results,” says Swasti with a sense of pride.
On World Peace day, he was invited by GEOC (Global Environment Outstretch Centre) in the Tokyo UN building to host an exhibition of selected works by the students of Chiba School. The best part was that the Japanese people were impressed with the simplicity of Eyecan pastels when they compared it with the Mitsuro Pen. The next day he was invited by Takashi Tanaka, inventor of the Mitsuro Pen, for a friendly conversation about Eyecan.
What is Eyecan
‘Eyecan’ is a user-friendly set of four CMYK wax crayons for the visually impaired, which come with Braille inscribed ‘caps’ naming the colours. The crayons are packaged in a sliding tray, with its cover inscribed ‘Eyecan’ in Braille. The four cylindrical caps of the crayons are printed with special rubber tactile Braille over a thick paper, and they can be fitted over any 3mm jumbo pastel.
Each of the paper caps can be used more than 60 times.
In terms of identifying, drawing and using the pastel to form any shape, Swasti has also created a mesh net easel, with a thin wired mesh covering the soft board, which gives one a tactile base and leaves behind a pastel texture to feel and know where your pastel is moving.
To use the Eyecan crayons, a visually impaired person has to be given certain instructions before they start to draw, and they need to be made familiar with the different shapes and sizes around them. The logic behind Eyecan is to equate feeling (through touch) with viewing.
The response so far
Swasti feels that the visually challenged learn and adopt very fast, and that their sense of touch and imagination is far more powerful than that of ordinary human beings. It took him just two classes to make them realise what wonder they are capable of. “I gave them examples of the legendary visually-impaired artist Eşref Armağan from Turkey, who was born in an impoverished family and taught himself to write and paint. I also encouraged them to explore their imagination. I even explored techniques to enable them to feel and draw, using cutout shapes of different objects like flowers, vegetables and fruit, cars and even human figures as part of the teaching. Surprisingly, the results were outstanding.”
At the end of the workshop, on February 21, 2013, Swasti and the school put up an art exhibition showcasing the work of the students. Many people, including his clients and his company officials visited the exhibition, hosted by Galerie Art Eterne free of cost. Shivani Bharadwaj, a senior artist from Delhi, joined the cause by teaching the children on week days.
“We showcased the implements (pastel and drawing board) on the opening day. For the visually challenged, the sensation of touch converts the shape, size, dimensions and perspectives into imaginative drawings in the mind and they express themselves by using the Braille-coded pastels over the mesh-textured board. The best part about the whole effort was that the students themselves could get a feel of their paintings, and that was not restricted to just the audience, artists, parents and teachers,” says Swasti with a sense of fulfilment.
Art in the curriculum
Initially, Swasti was teaching art as workshop projects using Eyecan implements but later moved to weekend classes. But it was difficult for him to concentrate on every student individually as their numbers increased. “So the only solution I thought of was to propose to the ministry of education to implement Art as a subject across all schools for the visually impaired. I sent a detailed summary to the ministry on why and how it can be of immense help in building a better future for the visually impaired. I cannot carry it forward as an NGO project for long, where specific schools for the visually impaired will conduct workshops for a stipulated time. So I have sent a financial and technical proposal to the ministry so that Eyecan can be implemented by them through an NGO or by appointing permanent Art instructors and teachers.
Present day situation
Mass production and distribution of Eyecan sets, with trained instructors to implement the system in all schools is a big thing to ask for, but if the government does not take this proposal forward, the young innovator feels, the project might be limited to a few blind schools. “To keep it alive, I will go on conducting classes and also organise small events like when I recently created Holi colour packets coded with Braille colour names and played Holi with the students of the school. It is also quite challenging to find a team I can trust to join me to teach Art using these implements and work as volunteers. Just joining me on an FB page does not serve the purpose,” he sighs.
Short film and awards
Swasti made a film called Eyecan that documents the designer’s idea properly and can be found on YouTube. “It helped me spread awareness about my cause, and to educate people on how it works. The film was sponsored by my company JWT, Delhi. The initial funding for the workshop was made by my clients like Reynolds and Pepsico.
The film, Eyecan, has been screened at some national film festivals and Eyecan was awarded best product design at the Goa Fest awards. Recently Eyecan also bagged a recognition in the Limca Book of Records as the first Braille painting implement for the visually impaired.
Says Swasti, “I have just started my revolution from here, getting a lot of response from schools for the visually challenged in Bangalore, Jaipur, Chandigarh and Odisha. Soon I’ll be covering the rest of India. I have already started further research for acrylic and paint-based colours for the visually challenged, which I will be launching towards end of this year.
Keen to do a lot for his home state, Odisha, Swasti is researching the existence and history of Chandua (applique) Art of Pipili. “I’m creating a graphical book, which is hand stitched the way Chandua is done, depicting the story of lord Jagannath,” he says.
As for Eyecan, he points out that being a cost-effective tool to enable visually-challenged students to engage with art, it is a success in itself, but unless Art is incorporated into the school curriculum of the visually-impaired, as a permanent subject, the project will not benefit the community at large.
“From the enthusiastic response I got from students and the support of the teachers and the principal (of Institution for the Blind), I’m hopeful the project will move ahead and expand the horizon of the sightless — because that is what art does,’’ says a smiling Swasti.