It’s the first for Pakistan. The Museum and Art Gallery, State Bank of Pakistan, Karachi, will unveil a braille handbook in Karachi on August 14. “It’s the only museum in Pakistan, which is disabled-friendly,” smiles the man behind realising the project, Siddhant Shah.
The 26-year-old has completed his masters in heritage management from the Athens University of Economics and Business, and is currently an architecture and access consultant for the MSMS II Museum, City Palace Jaipur, for which he wrote India’s first braille art book. In March this year, at a Commonwealth Association of Museums workshop conducted at the City Palace, the Juhu resident was one of the speakers and he shed light on his work and area of expertise. The State Bank of Pakistan museum director, Dr Azma Ibrahim, attended the workshop and approached Shah to create a braille handbook for the institution. In addition to using braille, Shah created tactile prototypes of the objects on paper, using the skill of henna designers. “We used a dye that they use for cone work in handicrafts; it is a pigment mixed with an adhesive,” he explains.
But in hindsight, creating a handbook for Pakistan was perhaps one of the most challenging projects he has taken up so far. “Their collection is massive and I wasn’t even able to go there to work on the book because of visa issues,” he informs. “Even couriering the book from here to Pakistan was a task. The Government Post Office in Jaipur, where I spend a fortnight each month, wasn’t sure what matter I was sending in braille. Finally, I had to return to Mumbai to send it via a private courier service.”
Shah has also created a tactile gallery for the National Museum in Delhi and has worked on a project called Abhas, a tactile experience for the exhibition on the Masterpieces of Indian Master Artists at DAG Modern, New York, and another for the exhibition titled The Art of Shantiniketan at DAG Modern, Mumbai.
He took to creating art for mainly the visually impaired after seeing partial blindness from close quarters. Four years ago, Shah’s life turned around, when his mother lost nearly 70 per cent of her vision in her right eye. “We were like any other regular family, going out frequently, and suddenly most of it stopped. We realised how unwelcoming most open spaces are for the disabled,” he grouses.
Around the same time, Shah fortuitously received the Saint Gobain scholarship for research for prototyping of cultural material for universal access in museums and monuments (physical and intellectual disability), as well as the Stavros Niarchos scholarship, through which he got the opportunity to study the Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh, “so that I could understand how disabled-friendly national monuments are really,” he says. “In fact, a person who was visually-impaired took me around the Stupa.”
To strengthen his body of work further, Shah has been working with a school for the blind in Jaipur, from where he has learnt braille. There, he met professor Bhargava, who works with visually impaired children abandoned by their families. “His contribution to my work is invaluable. For instance, when I first wrote the braille guidebook, I started almost every sentence with ‘as you can see…’, out of sheer habit. It was Professor Bhargava who pointed out that they can’t see,” he shrugs.