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Gabbar Singh’s Nemesis

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An association is helping market the works of disabled artists who paint using their mouth and feet

When Nadeem Riyasat Ali Shaikh entered the world 15 years ago, it was without hands. His formative years were traumatic but there was one silver lining—he had art within him. That he was disabled did not deter him. He began to paint with his foot.  “I held the brush in my toes,” says Shaikh.

Three years ago, an art teacher in school advised him to get in touch with the Indian Mouth and Foot Artists Association. Shaikh was pleasantly surprised when his call led to volunteers landing at his house in north Mumbai. Since then, a sum of Rs 2,500 is deposited to his bank account every month. “The money is for raw materials. The organisation sells our paintings and we get a part of the proceeds,” he says. A student of Ismail Yusuf College now, he has done about 75 paintings.

The association to which Shaikh belongs is the Indian chapter of a global body called Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (AMFPA). Their objective is to empower the disabled by providing self-respect, creative fulfillment and financial security. Once an artwork is approved, it is reproduced as greeting cards or calendars. These are then sold through AMFPA’s marketing network. All their artists paint holding the brush with their teeth or, like Shaikh, in between toes.

The man who started AMFPA was Arnulf Enrich Stegmann, a German polio victim who grew up without the use of his arms. But he still became a successful painter using his mouth. Stegmann believed that if painters with similar problems formed a cooperative, they could live by their art and enjoy work security. What he did not want was the organisation to be regarded as a charity. Worldwide, it now has about 700 mouth and foot artists. Thirty years ago, the Indian arm of the organisation was established by Felix Wiesinger, a close friend of Stegmann.

One of the earliest Indian members is 64-year-old Hari Ram Kohli, who is currently in a home for paraplegics in Pune.  He had been a ground training instructor with the Indian Air Force. In December 1970, Kohli was demonstrating gymnastic somersaults during an inter-squadron sports meet when he slipped and had a spinal injury. It turned him into a quadriplegic and he could not use his limbs anymore.

After living a paralysed existence for some years, the idea of painting began to take shape in his mind. He began by writing his name using a pen held in his mouth. Later, he went on to paint a flower and some leaves. When Kohli came across a card painted by a mouth artist, he decided to get in touch with the organisation. “I have been a member since 1983 and have even attended an international painting exhibition in China,” says Kohli.