Indian Museum Kolkata Unlocks New Creativity in Autistic Children

Every Monday, children under the watchful eye of parents draw with their perception and imagination in these galleries

Every Monday, children under the watchful eye of parents draw with their perception and imagination in these galleries

On a Monday afternoon, Abhishek sat in front of rows of paintings by Gaganendranath Tagore in the “painting gallery” of the Indian Museum in Kolkata. Sunlight from the old arched window in the gallery fell on the painted panels forming a triangle shaped shadow. Looking at the rows of paintings which are unique specimens of the Bengal school of art and the light falling in a triangle, Abhishek drew a tram. While it’s not unusual for people to draw streetcars that represent an icon of transportation and city history, the boy’s parents were curious as he hadn’t seen one in the recent past.

These rows of paintings must have appeared like cars to Abhishek and the light falling on them like a pantograph, explained Arnab Basu, curator and head of the Indian Museum’s art section. “If you stand and just look at the sketches and artwork of children and young adults with autism, you will be fascinated by the difference in their perception of the world,” Basu said.

Every Monday, when the museum is closed to visitors, children and young adults with autism like Abhishek visit the painting gallery and the textile and decorative art gallery of the oldest museum in the country. They look at the exhibits in silence under the watchful eye of their parents and try to bite using their perceptual and imaginative faculties.

The curator, while pointing to another child, Sagnik, said he could only draw straight lines when he started attending the Monday workshop. The boy had problems bending his wrist and so drawing sketches was a challenge. An experiment was designed using a balloon, and Sagnik is now painting different exhibits at the museum. Museum authorities call these workshops “Soul Silence Mondays” and the number of children and young adults attending the workshop has increased to between 15 and 20, compared to just a few each week. Until a few months ago, Abhishek and Sagnik found it difficult to sit still for a few minutes, but now they can draw for hours at the gallery of the Indian Museum.

“Children’s attention span has increased”

Subhraneel Das attempts to sketch a portrait of Jamini Roy. Jyoti Subhra Das, the boy’s mother says the Indian museum gives a good environment for her son, the people are very supportive and there are lots of subjects to draw. By the time the sketch is complete, it appears to be an image where he has juxtaposed the imagery of Goddess Durga with a portrait of an ordinary woman. Subhraneel, over the past few months, has also held exhibitions of his sketches and paintings.

According to experts, children with autism have difficulties in language learning, verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction. While museum authorities are reluctant to make claims about the therapeutic effects of these workshops, many parents who bring their children to the workshops have reported that the children’s attention spans have increased and they can now paint or draw for hours.

“Keep sketches to organize future exhibitions”

Mr Basu, who was instrumental in opening up the museum space to children with autism, said that together with the parents, the museum also keeps the sketches and paintings of these children and hopes that at the future, they will be able to organize an exhibition. Authorities introduced a child who is a trained painter to interact and paint with people with autism so they can communicate and learn new skills. Monday workshops at the Indian Museum are voluntary and no one is obligated to attend.

Arijit Dutta Choudhury, director of the Indian museum, said there has been a very significant improvement in the quality of sketches made by children and young adults over the past few months. “The sketches they made are proof that they love what they do. Museums are public spaces that must be accessible to everyone and therefore there is no reason not to welcome people with physical or mental disabilities,” the director said.

Indian Museum authorities pointed out that just a few days ago, a new definition of museums was decided at the general conference of the 26th International Conference of Museums (ICOM) held in Prague. The new definition stresses that these spaces must be “accessible and inclusive, museums promote diversity and sustainability”. Referring to this new definition where the focus is on making museums more inclusive, Indian museum authorities said they are on the right track.

“If you stand and just look at the sketches and artwork of children and young adults with autism, you will be fascinated by how different their perception of the world is”Arnab BasuCurator and head of the art section of the Indian Museum

About Margaret L. Portillo

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