One of the greatest modernists from Bengal, Benode Behari Mukherjee, could never take his vision for granted. An illness in childhood rendered him blind in one eye and myopic in the other. Then, at 53, in 1957, his lost his eyesight completely after a failed cataract operation. Undeterred, he went back to work soon enough, this time reinventing himself by relying on touch and memory to produce paper-cuts, sculptures and drawings when it became impossible to paint.
Picasso once said, 'painting is a blind man's profession', perhaps implying how colours and the visible light spectrum are subjective things. So, when the Kolkata Centre for Creativity (KCC) released The Art of Benode Behari Mukherjee—the first in a series of braille books on art—at the recently concluded India Art Fair, it seemed like a long overdue effort.
Published in collaboration with Access For All, the book provides an introduction to the art and life of Mukherjee, enlivened through five paintings which have been converted into tactile artworks (with permission from Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation) and an accompanying essay in braille by his student, friend and fellow modernist, K.G. Subramanyan.
"Art books, most of which are exhibition catalogues, are more often than not written and consumed by the Anglophone. As a result, we do not even have art books in regional languages to bridge the divide between the privileged anglophone and the rest, let alone enough books in braille that discuss art and culture," says Richa Agarwal, chairperson at KCC. "Realising this need, we have committed to creating at least one braille book each year on an artist who can inspire one to engage with the arts if not convince them to pursue it," says Agarwal, who plans to honour another master from Bengal in the next braille book that comes out of KCC. The book has a non-braille English text too, printed in a larger font keeping in mind the partially blind.
It is indeed hard to produce an art book in braille which truly appeals to and benefits the visually impaired adult. Verbo-visual prompts never fully convey the transformational power of a work of art. Arctic Circle: A Tactile Graphic Novel For Blind Readers (2016), made possible by a grant from the Finnish institute Kone, has the artist Ilan Manouach construct an entirely new language as part of his "conceptual" comic book about a pair of climatologists in the North Pole. "To make comic books accessible to the blind, Manouach devised an entire new language composed of sculptural, touchable symbols and patterns, which are pieced together to tell a story...," writes a reviewer in the online arts magazine Hyperallergic. "The result is Shapereader, a system of tactile ideograms, or “tactigrams:” haptic equivalents for objects, actions, feelings, characters, and other features of any story. They're raised shapes on wooden board, and have more in common with Chinese pictograms than with braille letters or the Roman alphabet, in that they're textural depictions of what they represent."
In India, we are yet to see innovative art books which are so thoughtfully produced for the blind or the partially impaired. "While a number of blind schools and braille presses are active, making visual arts and artists accessible to the visually impaired has remained a low priority. KCC's Braille Books on Art series attempts to bridge this gap by converting two-dimensional artworks into tactile artworks that could be felt and experienced physically," says Agarwal.