Deaf Life8th January 2014

Garnering Deaf Artist's Passion In India

The Atulyakala programme aims to bring deaf people in India with artistic talent the opportunity to flourish

by Harshit Vishwakarma

As in many countries around the world, deaf people in India face many barriers to getting the best jobs and life opportunities. Against that backdrop I have helped form the Atulyakala (Art Unparalleled) group which has been brought together to interact and create opportunities through the provision of a safer and enriched creative space for Deaf artists.

Under the Atulyakala banner, deaf artists are able to express themselves, illustrate their skills and create a socially responsible brand that utilizes deaf artists’ passion, as well as fostering interesting collaborations and garnering awareness about the Indian Sign Language.

Our ambition is to bridge the gap that exists between the deaf and the hearing communities and to create a creative space which celebrates, explores and represents deaf art culture in India, fostering interesting collaborations with mainstream art and exploring the creative aspect of the language of signs.

The Atulyakala programme is currently made up of four people working in one studio. Of the four of us, two are hearing and two deaf.



Smriti Nagpal I came up with the idea for the project. We were on the verge of completing our graduation and were looking out for work that we cold relate to and feel passionate about. Smriti Nagpal has had a lifelong connection with the Deaf community as both her wonderful elder siblings are Deaf.  Once she had to go to a business premises in Delhi with her sister where she accidentally met Amit Vardhan who is Deaf. Amit saw her signing and talking to her sister. Amit was working but he was very happy to find someone signing and he opened up telling Smiriti about his education and the work he was doing. He explained that he was not happy or satisfied with the monotonous work (Folder pasting) he was doing there and thought he could do better and had more potential. He wanted to do something creative and have financial stability as he had a family to look after.

After this chance meeting, Smriti and I were discussing the situation of Deaf people in India and how they have zero exchange with the mainstream creative professionals. The art college I had done my graduation at had a special quota for Deaf people and I knew there were a lot of deaf artists who wanted to pursue Art. When we heard the stories of Amit Vardhan, his friends and other Deaf artists we came in contact with, we realised the lack of opportunities for them when they get out of college. It was at this point we began our experiment of creating a platform where Deaf artists can interact with mainstream artists and co-create. Amit Vardhan happily left his job in need of a better environment to work and since then we have been co-creating.

At the heart of our ambition is the desire to achieve acceptance of Deaf people as an equal and undifferentiated parts of the society. We are looking to create opportunities for Deaf people to work in a safer and enriching environment where they can illustrate their creativity, skills and grow as artists, thereby supporting themselves financially.

Additionally we are looking to create an exchange of Deaf artists with the mainstream through a two way creative process, creative partnerships and collaborations. We hope to garner awareness about the Indian Sign Language and create a rich resource for people to learn, understand and appreciate. We are also exploring the creative side of Sign language and building a body of work around it.

By way of background and to fully understand the extent of the problem we are helping to fix, India has the largest Deaf population in the world. The prospects for Deaf people in India are not that great. India lacks the basic infrastructure and consciousness to accommodate the voices of Deaf people. It has been estimated that only 5% of children who are deaf attended any special educational programme. Of the special education programmes that do exist, the overwhelming majority do not provide an education that is fully accessible to the deaf pupils, as few use sign language effectively in the class rooms — not least because Deaf schools rarely have any teachers who are full signers (i.e.themselves Deaf).

Deaf students leaving school are thus almost invariably far behind their grade level in all academic subjects and also often lacking in basic literacy. This educational gap is further exacerbated by the fact that there are few or no higher educational opportunities in India for Deaf students. Access to institutes of higher learning is, for example, limited by the fact that whereas Indian universities without exception admit only students who have passed twelfth standard, almost no Deaf school provides education beyond tenth standard. As a result, since few Deaf get into university, even fewer come out, and one important result is that there are almost no qualified Deaf teachers, leading to a spiral in the lack of accessibility of education.


It is estimated that 'one of every five people who are deaf in the world, lives in India', making it the country with the largest number of Deaf people and perhaps also the largest number of sign language users. Deaf people in India lack all sorts of information resources. One result of the lack of basic language resources for Indian Sign Language, is that while it has finally been acknowledged by many that Indian Sign language is a true and complete language, statements as to its unity have been based more on impression rather than data, hindering the recognition of an acceptable 'standard' (or standards) required for wide scale action. Without dictionaries and grammars it is difficult to imagine a large corpse of trained and professional sign language interpreters or sign-proficient teachers, let alone the as-yet unimaginable: educational materials for Deaf people in their own language.

In recognising a significant and mammoth challenge, our project started formally in February 2013. Since then we have created a whole range of fun and colourful products representing India and its varied culture created by Deaf and hearing artists together. We have got a good response with these products and people have really appreciated them. We have received orders for these products from India as well as abroad.

We have also done commissioned art projects, one of them being designing a wedding invite for a big fat destination wedding in Goa, India. The wedding card was a combination of Deaf and hearing artists getting to know the bride and groom, infusing their personalities and the elements of the destination in the invite. The illustration were done by Amit Vardhan and the entire team helped in putting together the whole card for the client.

We recently designed a T-shirt for the National Association of the Deaf for their Peace walk which demanded Deaf rights and equality for Deaf people. The T-shirts were inspired by the ‘Equality Sign’ in the Indian Sign Language and were worn by everybody who took part in the rally.

We have also held an exhibition at Club South Patio, Gurgaon (Delhi & NCR) where we exhibited our work and received an overwhelming response from the audience. The exhibition was not just a platform to sell our work, but we used it also as a medium to create awareness about the Indian Sign Language and process behind creating the products. We handed out a small bookmark to everybody who came to see us, which explained about Indian Sign Language and had a tutorial showing how to sign ‘LOVE’.

We have represented ourselves at various platforms explaining about what we do, and creating awareness about the Indian Sign Language in India. We presented at a seminar at Delhi University, Miranda House where we explained to a crowd of young college students - what we do, how we do it and why we are doing it. Telling them about the Deaf community, their needs and aspirations.

Our current projects include creating products inspired by the signs in Indian Sign Language, exploring the creative aspect of it and creating a niche in the market for the products.

Since we are meeting a lot of Deaf artists and getting to know them and their style of work we have embarked on a parallel project which interviews Deaf artists. ‘Silent Experiences - Conversations with Deaf Artists’ which is an ongoing series of artist's interviews initiated by us to bring out unheard stories and experiences of Deaf artists in India. This series also serves as a document to explore and understand the needs of the Indian Deaf Art community, listen to their stories and bring out conversations about art, life and being.

We are also fostering more interesting collaborations, bringing in more deaf artists with varied styles and different backgrounds. For example: There’s a Deaf artist Neetu, who does absolutely amazing paper jewellery. We recently interviewed her for “Silent Experiences” and are currently preparing to collaborate with her on a project that combines paper jewellery, design and illustration.

We are all loving what we do, creating things of value, impacting people’s lives by challenging the status quo. However, there are moments of ups and downs as we are still young and we are not that capable of supporting ourselves financially. We are striving hard by doing the work we are passionate about, generating finances by creating a business module, and creating a buzz about what we do. Convincing Deaf people to come and collaborate with us is challenging as there is a trust deficit they have towards hearing communities because they feel they will be exploited or underestimated.

We have had a social media campaign about creating awareness about the Indian Sign Language. We have started with the alphabets and we have received an overwhelming response as the awareness previously was minimal. There was hardly anybody who knew about the language and now we have requests from youngsters and people from all walks of life who really want to learn this visual means of communication. There is certainly a coolness attached to being able to communicate using signs and as a lot of people have come across deaf individuals in their life they have felt tongue tied talking to them. People are willing to learn and that’s why we are in the process of creating material to make learning ISL a fun, engaging and enriching experience.

Commenting on the Atulyakala programme, Amit Vardhan said, "I want the Deaf community here in India to explore, learn, interact, have faith in their abilities and grow as artists. Lets create a big art community where we learn, explore and excel together. Don’t give up just because you’re deaf. You’re strong and you are capable." Amit Vardhan, Artist, India

​Pintoo Kumar, our photographer said, "Hearing people are prejudiced about us, they react abnormally when they see us signing. I wish for a culture where both the worlds co-exist, where they try to understand our means of communication and appreciate it and not blame our deafness on fate and destiny. We are not incapable and needy. I believe we can do it. I hope for a world where we all co-exist with peace and harmony and work together to create a better world for all of us."

Neetu Dadlani, a new artist to our group said, "It gets really difficult when we work with hearing people, because they don’t understand what we say and then they get frustrated. Then we feel left out, and that’s why we enjoy working with deaf people.  If they take a little step of learning a little about our way of communication then we can work and grow together and then they won’t have any problems."

In Atulyakala we believe there are untapped abilities in the Deaf community. It’s time we gave them an opportunity and a better platform to show their potential, and live a life with dignity and pride.

If you would like to learn more about the Atulyakala Programme please visit their Facebook page.

Article by Harshit Vishwakarma

posted in Community / Deaf Life

8th January 2014