mid-day's 39th anniversary: Joining the dots
A young Andheri resident is creating innovative ways for the disabled to enjoy heritage and the arts
Siddhant Shah, 27
Heritage architect and founder, Access for All
It was a logistical nightmare because the content was in Braille. Indian and Pakistani authorities were suspicious, and every section had to be decoded," recalls Siddhant Shah, the heritage architect who founded Access for All, a disability services and support organisation. Thanks to his path-breaking initiative, visually challenged visitors can now marvel at monetary treasures housed inside the State Bank Museum and Art Gallery in Karachi.'
"Dr Asma Ibrahim, the museum's director, met me at a conference of Commonwealth countries in Jaipur and was keen that I come on board," says Shah. Despite the challenges involved — from wiring funds via Dubai to imagining a space he had never been to, he admits, "It's the maximum support I've received for a project, till date."
Shah wears his achievements lightly as he rattles off projects at Delhi Art Gallery, Mumbai; National Museum; the Red Fort; Jantar Mantar; Udaipur's Mehrangarh Museum, and CISV China. We glance at a few artworks and Braille guidebooks that are arranged on a centre table at his Andheri home. His mother, Anisha, serves us chai and pudina farsan, and suggests that our photographer capture a key frame from her son's portfolio.
A tactile artwork recreated by Shah
"She's why this became a personal mission. In 2010, she was struck with partial blindness. It became a social stigma for her; yet she [an art teacher] continued to share her skills with young kids. By then, I was studying architecture at NMIMS and had won the first prize along with batchmates Jay and Siddhi Kapadia for a project to make Ellora Caves disabled-friendly. Our reward was a tour of Sanchi Stupa where a visually impaired person guided us around. I experienced the power of touch, and decided to get my mother involved in my work."
Later, while pursuing a Masters in heritage management in Athens, a blindfolded tour inside a tactile museum emerged as the next turning point. "The penny had dropped," recalls Shah, "I secured a Saint-Gobain Scholarship programme that centred on accessible designs for public spaces. The condition for the scholarship was that I incorporate my ideas in projects in India. After a six-month-wait, the City Museum Palace in Jaipur invited me," he says.
We spot a tactile mountain landscape painting among the displays. "Ma created it," he says, adding, "All the tactile artworks are by her." Shah has a four-member team, all of whom work out of this suburban flat. "I have to keep the overheads low," he shrugs. Yet, his quiet confidence takes him places. From teaching jail inmates and school teachers in Haryana about art and accessibility to being a UNESCO consultant on accessible design, he continues to join the dots and touch lives.
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