KATHMANDU, Jan 11: 16-year-old Sushmita Limbu aspires to be a professional thangka painter. She lives in Bungamati and is one of the 60 children residing at the Disabled Services Association Nepal (DSA). Sushmita was born without the ability to speak or hear and was raised by her father until five years of age, with her mother having eloped when Sushmita was still an infant. Her father made do by sifting sand from the riverbeds, often with her cradled on his back. Daya Ram Maharjan, the founder of Disabled Services Association, heard of their predicament and offered to take Sushmita in.
Maharjan, a teacher at Adarsha Saula Yubak Secondary School in Bungamati, is guardian to some 60 children with hearing, speaking, and sight impairments. As a teacher, he observed the first blind student, admitted to the school in the year 1990, struggling with school work and set on to learning Braille to help the child. With more additions of disabled children from 1993 onward, he learnt sign language too and took hours translating books to make them disabled-friendly. With support from local guardians, he conducted extensive research to determine the exact numbers of disabled children and registered “Apanga Sewa Sangh” or Disabled Services Association Nepal in the year 1997.
Today, under the establishment DSA Nepal there are children pursuing their primary, secondary, post secondary and undergraduate education. They live together at the hostel and attend Adarsha Saula Yubak Secondary School. Sushmita is one of them and so is Pratigya, her closest friend. Pratigya Gajurel too had hearing-speaking impairments since birth and came under Maharjan’s care at the requests of her brother. Her family wished for her a more meaningful life than she would have had in Gajuri in Dhading (her birthplace).
Both are among the 11 thangka painters residing at DSA Nepal. They began painting as a result of Maharjan’s vision to see them lead self-sustained lives beyond their school years. “I can teach them everything I know but that still won’t guarantee them secure careers,” says Maharjan. On working with the children for years he learnt that those with hearing impairments had highly attuned and detailed vision. They were good with memorizing details and were best suited for painting, especially thangka painting that is largely detail oriented. For the visually impaired, they had excellent hearing so were suited to pursue music.
By tapping into their refined senses, Maharjan arranged for his students to receive trainings in thangka painting and music. Every morning, beginning at 6:00 am, all 60 of the children meditate for nearly an hour and at 7:00 am proceed to their respective classes. For thangka painting, Surya Muni Shakya, a professional thangka painter, joins the children and guides them throughout the process. They first begin with sketching, that can alone take hours to complete, considering the meticulous nature of the work. Following their sketches, they start on painting, with measured strokes and dexterous hands. Finishing a painting takes them days of hourly sessions. They paint until their morning call for school (where they study with children like themselves) and file out in processions together.
Khil Kumari Sanjel from Makwanpur is one among the painters and she too is vocally and audibly impaired. She expresses that painting gives her immense joy. It’s something she does when grouped with her friends and seeing her work take shape before her gives her an immense sense of satisfaction. Initially, she painted because it was mandated but now she paints because of her love and passion for her work. She has, till date, completed some 15 paintings and she cherishes every single one of them with all her heart.
Sushmita also explains that drawing and painting are things she loved to indulge in when she was a kid too. “When I grow up, I wish to teach children like myself how to paint. Art has given me great comfort and assured that I’m no less than anyone. I wish to share this kind of assurance with children in the same situation as me,” she conveys to The Week through writing.
Pratigya backs the very idea too. Art has comforted her more than anything else ever has. She believes that drawing has helped develop her senses and opened her to seeing things more clearly and attentively.
For Surathi Balami, another resident who also paints and works with handlooms (another recreational activity at DSA Nepal), the hours she paints are those she looks forward to the most in a day. She has had very few years of formal education but is a passionate painter who has a very high regard for art. It is because here she is a creator of something extraordinarily beautiful and nothing less.
For Daya Ram Maharjan, everyday is a challenge but he takes on to devising ways through which he can contribute in the holistic development of his students. Last year, he arranged for a display of the paintings completed by his students at the Siddhartha Art Gallery at Baber Mahal Revisited in Kathmandu. Every single one of them was highly praised and Maharjan confesses that it delighted him and those involved in making them.
Maharjan’s recent undertaking was a cultural night at Kamaladi on December 2018 where his students staged musical performances and displayed their artworks before masses of people. “This is an attempt to bolster their confidence. Having skills isn’t just enough, they need to have the confidence to flaunt them and shows like these help do that,” he says.
For Pratigya, Sushmita and many like them, art is what gives meaning to their lives. It makes them view their disabilities not as weaknesses but as something that motivates them to work harder and smarter. Framed all along the corridors of DSA Nepal are proud displays of all the artists’ works. From Buddha to mandala, the pieces are so immaculately and finely done that you would think the makers are professional artists. And watching the girls work is a lesson in itself – on how there are no limitations in life if you learn to work around the challenges life throws your way.