How 83-year-old Lata Chaudhry found focus, inspiration in tribal art after a life-changing Alzheimer's diagnosis

Living with Alzheimer’s, this 83-year-old Mumbaikar finds focus and inspiration in tribal art, and the only memories she is left with — her childhood.
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The paintings that line the walls of Lata Chaudhry’s Bandra East home are bright, rich and colourful, much like the personality of their octogenarian creator. She first picked up a brush as a child, learning the basics of art from her older sister Mai. One of eight siblings, she frequently talks about her childhood home near Mumbai’s Opera House.

Her father Rambhau Tatnis was a noted journalist, editor and publisher of one of India’s first pre-Independence Marathi newspapers Vividhvritta, and a close associate of Dr BR Ambedkar and NV Gadgil. She attended the Ram Mohan English school in Girgaon, Mumbai where she was in the same class as Usha Mangeshkar, the youngest sister of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. Even as a child, Lata Chaudhry had a keen interest in music and art despite having no formal training. She recalls performing a song along with Usha Mangeshkar at a function attended by Lady Mountbatten. Her paintings at a school exhibition, were appreciated by legendary actress Durga Khote, who told the then 11-year-old Lata that she must always nurture her talent. 

However, her idyllic childhood would come to an end when her father passed away before she could complete her education. She dropped out of college to help support the family by selling paintings and hand-painted sarees. She continued to do this till she got married and moved with her husband, Yogendra Shankar Chaudhry, to their home in Bandra East, where they have been living for nearly six decades. 

Lata Chaudhry with her husband Yogendra Shankar Chaudhry at their home in Mumbai

Four years ago, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s which has impacted her short-term memory. Her memories of her mother’s home are lucid and she frequently inquires about her mother and siblings, all of whom have passed on, and why they haven’t been calling her. The pandemic, too, has taken its toll as she fails to understand why the streets are empty and how the life she knows doesn’t exist anymore. Her primary caregiver is her husband who has been firm in his support and in helping her cope since her diagnosis. 

Her son Paresh, who lives in Mumbai, with his family, and is Group President, Corporate Communication, with the Adani Group , makes it a point to visit her nearly every day for lunch. Her other son Prateek is based in Dubai and has been unable to return since the pandemic.

It is Paresh who helped her re-ignite her passion for painting.

Speaking to Social Story, Paresh says, “With dementia, the regression happens very quickly. Her doctors told me that it was very important to keep her engaged. In her mind, she is back at her parents' house. When you explain that her mother and siblings are no longer with us, she worries that someone could be killing her family. She forgets if we had our food or not. She frequesntly asks where Balu (Prateek) is,” says Paresh.

Following the doctor’s advice, Paresh says he got her painting supplies and books on animals and plants. “It takes a while to encourage her to start, but once she does, the focus is unwavering and she can spend hours painting the most detailed vibrant images.

She is deeply inspired by the Warli tribes of Chhattisgarh, whose lives she depicts in her art. .She can reproduce a five-foot-by-four-foot canvas from a four-inch picture just by looking at it. And for those two hours or so a day, she is at peace and is focused. And the results are amazing. A large painting of a woman leaning on a branch hangs in my home,” says Paresh. 

He says that his mother is also most comfortable in the home she shares with her husband. “She still cooks three meals a day and my friends enjoy her fish curry and dal. She knows where everything in her kitchen is and still refuses to keep help at home. However, when she comes to visit me at my home, she forgets where the front door is and does not know how to navigate our kitchen,” he says.

This painting by 83-year-old Lata Chaudhry is proudly displayed at her son's home in Mumbai

Her other constant support has been her husband. From encouraging her art to answering all her questions when she forgets things from minute to minute, he navigates his new normal patiently. “People are often so focussed on the person living with Alzheimer’s that they forget about the impact it has on the family. 

"My mother knows something is wrong, but can’t quite understand it. On several occasions, she has said ‘Did I not just tell you this a few minutes ago?’ She then blames Dad saying, 'he doesn’t remember anything'. It’s hard on him because, at the age of 87, he has to do everything from answering the phone to answering the door. But what affects him the most is that he can no longer have conversations or reminisce with her because she does not remember much about their life together. But, you will never find a picture of them together where he is not holding on to her.” 

Paresh says his mother lives each day with optimism and never goes into self-pity mode. He says she is still a voracious reader (she hates romantic novels and loves political writing) and reads the papers every afternoon. “She calls daily to ask if I know about this new virus. For my mother, everything is new every day because she doesn’t remember. It’s her painting that keeps her going, even if it’s something she picked up again after a gap of decades.” 

It is something that her 11-year-old self perhaps best articulated at the art exhibition, when she responded to Durga Khote's encouragement, saying, “Aunty, talent has no age!

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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