An architect's initiative to make art accessible for the visually impairedShinjini Chowdhury
27-year-old Siddhant Shah is India’s first architect to render heritage projects and museums accessible and tangible to the visually impaired.
Over the telephone, Siddhant is cheerful and optimistic. He talks about the monuments he has worked on, and his mother.
All over the place, museums put up ‘Please Do Not Touch’ signs. We write ‘Please Touch’. People have come up to me and have pointed out that we have mistakenly skipped the important words. That is really funny, laughs Siddhant.
Siddhant is a heritage architect and accessibility consultant who set up Access for ALL in Mumbai in 2016 to push physical and social limits in spaces of cultural significance to create an inclusive experience for all visitors.
Beginning in Greece
Siddhant secured a post-graduate diploma in Indian arts and aesthetics from Gyan Prabha. A Stavros Niarchos scholar, he completed an MA in Heritage Management from the University of Kent, Greece campus. It was Greece that changed things for Siddhant as he saw how accessible the museums were. These boasted of disabled-friendly galleries, and the visually impaired were able to visit museums as well.
He and his friends won a competition hosted by UNESCO and Archaeological Survey of India to make world heritage sites accessible to the differently abled. Of his mother, he says, “She became partially sighted 10 years ago, but her zeal and efforts to live normally have been my biggest motivation. I think of her as my benchmark.”
Giving back to India
He designed Art Education and Appreciation for the Blind with Delhi Art Gallery Modern through his own initiative, ABHAS, which offers tactile art experiences. He created tactile surfaces and textures for visually impaired visitors, and published India and Pakistan’s first museum braille publication with large fonts and tactile imagery to encourage partially sighted and blind audiences.
The team has recently launched a touch-and-feel book on Indian folk art, the first of its kind in the world, in Malaysia at the Pustaka Bookaroo, a children’s literary festival. "I have been thearchitect and access consultant to the City Palace Museum of Jaipur. I have designed and created braille tactile miniature paintings and images of the old Pink City. I was also an organising committee member of a Commonwealth Associations of Museums workshop on 'Museum & Access in South Asia'", Siddhant says.
He conceptualised the first braille museum guidebook for the City Palace of Jaipur, created braille signage for the armoury gallery, and arranged for sensitisation campaigns. Siddhant is presently consulting with the Mehrangarh Fort Museum in Jodhpur to design engagement materials for the visually impaired. There, accessibility is an important part of the long-term plan. He is looking at profiles of global audiences, and creating braille infosignage and tactile art.
He is also the resource consultant for Anubhav, the tactile gallery for the disabled at the Ministry of Culture's National Museum, New Delhi. Tactile objects, braille tags, and audio guides are part of the change he brought.
Doing much more
He has received the NCPEDP Mphasis Universal Design Award, which he believes will help him network and connect to other important resources for collective growth, making Access for ALL a possibility.
Siddhant consults with various NGOs and government organisations. Since funding is the main impediment for projects, he is on the lookout for CSR collaborations and other sources of sponsorship. His work has taught him to be patient and plan meticulously for his goals. Eventually, he would like to see a world where art welcomes all. He recalls fondly how an old lady once expressed delight to him.
After seeing these tactile braille objects and braille books, I told my granddaughter that I had seen these things in London years ago,but I am thrilled that my granddaughter will grow up in a time when all these are available in our country. Thank you so much for doing this!, she had said.
Her smile and the smiles of many more when they can touch and feel beautiful art which they would have otherwise never known keeps Siddhant determined to create an inclusive world.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.