4 foot and mouth painters to watch out for at AccessAbilities Expo 2019


4 foot and mouth painters to watch out for at AccessAbilities Expo 2019

Published: Thu 31 Oct 2019, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 31 Oct 2019, 9:50 PM

When a tragedy restricted their movements, art kept them going. Today, these foot and mouth painting artists from India have found their calling in the strokes of their paint brush. And come next week, they will showcase their talents at the AccessAbilities Expo 2019 that takes place in Dubai next week. What does it mean to thrive when the best the world expects from you is to merely survive? We find out from the artists themselves
Jesfer Pulikkathody, Mouth Painter
I can't think of anything that triggered it," says Jesfer Pulikkathody, reflecting on the time he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. By the time Jesfer was 13, he had lost the ability to move his arms and legs. Studies and art took a backseat, and a whole new learning process began - one in which he had to pick up on how to do everyday things, like using the television remote or simply move around.
This was a time Jesfer devoted to reading. Soon, he gathered enough courage to place a pencil in between his teeth and began documenting his thoughts and observations in his diary. Writing would eventually bring art back to his life. For an easier transition, he began with pencil sketches and eventually graduated to the paint brush.
The first work of art Jesfer created showed a young boy leading a herd of goats, inspired by a familiar sight in his village in Kerala. Jesfer took two months to finish it, and by the time he was done, he had found his calling. Art!
Drawing with mouth, however, was no cakewalk. He used a regular paint brush - one that he'd been using way before muscular dystrophy restricted movement of his hands. This meant that he would find himself staring at a canvas with only six or eight-inch gap in between. "Most mouth artists use a long paint brush to have a wider gap, but since I had been a painter as a child, I chose to stick to a normal brush," recalls Jesfer.
The process demanded a few more tweaks. Since using a palette horizontally would strain his neck, he began to adjust his easel accordingly. "I place my palette vertically now, so that the paint stays at the bottom of each paint hole and I've had to order a special easel that can be adjusted by either my wife or mother."
An artist and his dreams often lean on the support system that is family. Today, Jesfer's near-and-dear ones have left no stone unturned to make his artistic process easier, apart from helping him with some routine activities. However, when it comes to his smartphone, he likes to be on top of things. From making calls to using voice-to-text function on WhatsApp, Jesfer knows how to make the most of social media. And why wouldn't he! After all, it was on Facebook that he first met his wife Fathima Dhofar when she was teaching in Oman. They talked about his passion for art and her love for poetry. Soon, there was lots to bond over.
"We got together after four years of Facebook direct messaging," says the 34-year-old artist. "As the days went by, our conversations took a romantic turn. When she told her parents about us, they were shocked and initially, they were against the idea of their daughter marrying someone disabled but Fathima was adamant. She flew down to Kerala to meet me and we both decided we wanted to marry each other. And that's what we did in November 2015."
Today, art takes Jesfer to various parts of India; the sale of his works also helps him support his family. He sought one but ended up ticking several boxes of what we'd call a 'conventional life'.

Sunitha Thrippanikkara, Mouth Painter
It was in the fifth grade that Sunitha Thrippanikkara discovered her love for art. One that preceded academics. That was until muscular dystrophy began restricting her hand movements - and painting became just one of those things she could no longer do. "Every day, muscular dystrophy paralyses me. Once, I had finished my schooling, I sat at home doing nothing. That was depressing." That's when Sunitha's brother Ganesh came to his sister's rescue. Born with muscular dystrophy, Ganesh had been painting with his mouth. Naturally then, what he had to offer to Sunitha was far more important than the waves of sympathy she would ordinarily receive from people around her - empathy and inspiration.
"When I was younger, he taught me the basics of art. Then at the age of 15, he taught me all over again. Except this time, I found myself painting with my mouth. Today, I study him and that's how I try to perfect my technique," says 36-year-old Sunitha, who hails from Kannur in Kerala.
Having painted more than 3,000 pieces, she now finds herself drawn towards impressionism, a modern art style denoted by small-yet-visible brush strokes and a vast composition. The style also demands a methodical use of brushstrokes that is all the more challenging for someone who does not paint with her hands. Sunitha decided to turn to her teeth to do what her hands once could. Holding the painting brush firmly with her teeth, she's made it a point to "paint like Van Gogh". She has often considered substituting the brush with a knife for painting. "But it's too risky to do that with my mouth. However, I am still looking for a way to learn."
With paralysed limbs, painting big canvases can be quite challenging, but Sunitha isn't a quitter. "Since my arms don't reach that high and my neck can only be tilted a little bit, my mother helps me. She folds the canvas, and then tapes two sticks together to form an extra-long paintbrush, so I can reach the high corners of the white canvas from my chair. It usually takes me one or two weeks to finish a piece and as a student member of the Indian Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, they help sell my paintings on greeting cards and calendars," she says.
Last week, ahead of her appearance at the AccessAbilities Expo 2019, Sunitha painted a life-size portrait of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai. At the Expo, Sunitha will demonstrate how she paints with her mouth while being seated on a wheelchair. If you find yourselves amid the audience, you will know why Sunitha is not quite wrong when she says art is her life. "I may need help with my daily routine, but my art is just mine."

Sheela Sharma, Foot Artist
Atrain accident had taken away her arms as well as some of her toes eons ago. But the biggest casualty, for the then four-year-old Sheela, was loss of confidence. Soon after this accident, Sheela's family sent her to a special school for the disabled in Delhi, hoping she would continue her studies and learn how to write with her foot instead. However, while there, Sheela learnt a lot more than words and their worth.
"One day, I saw a man who was disabled like me, except that he was painting without his hands. He held a paint brush between the stumps of his limbs and painted. Though I do not remember his name, I would say that he was the one who inspired me. I would keep watching him and try to mimic his movements with my foot," says the 51-year-old foot artist from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh.
Today, she places a paint brush between her big toe and second toe on her right leg, and lets her imagination loose on canvas. Sheela pursued a bachelors in fine arts from Lucknow Art College and found her niche in abstract painting with acrylic paints, even though over the years, she has tried out different art styles. "I had a teacher in college, who taught me how to paint what I was feeling. Often, I remember his advice before starting work on a new piece. In college, I was lucky that all my teachers and classmates were supportive. No one made fun of me for painting with my foot and that's what gave me the confidence to keep learning new art styles. The only style I tend to have a difficulty with is replicating a given photo or drawing. My art is usually driven by the way I feel, so replicating something so vividly is difficult for me."
Since 1991, Sheela has taken up foot painting professionally and has learnt a few tricks of the trade that help her in the process. When painting a large canvas, she adjusts the height of her chair to reach the top. Since she's been producing pieces for a long time, Sheela regretfully says her toes are constantly strained, and lately, she's been feeling tired.
"But I've only ever been passionate about two things in my life - painting and travelling. Though my body has started feeling worn out, I don't think I could ever get tired of creating art. It's a sad truth that there are fewer buyers out there willing to purchase art pieces, but I will still continue to create mine because this is what I love to do."

Bandenawaz Nadaf, Foot Painter
I want to make a self-portrait," says the 32-year-old foot artist Bandenawaz Nadaf, as he speaks to me on phone ahead of his appearance at AccessAbilities Expo in Dubai. "That's because I think I am quite a hero."
That contention is not misplaced. Born without arms, Bandenawaz has - for most part of his life - managed to do what others who he sees as being "gifted" haven't. From driving with his foot to becoming a foot painter, his is a journey that real #lifegoals are made of. "As a child, I had no option but to do everything with my feet. I would eat from my feet and fold clothes with them. At school, I began to learn to write with my feet and soon, wanted to push my boundaries by learning how to paint with my feet. When a teacher spotted me making a drawing is when I thought of taking it up more seriously."
That encouragement changed Bandenawaz's life. In art, he found an alternative universe. Today, his preferred style is abstract, though he admits that every once in a while, he attempts to re-create a Husain. On an average, he takes about two hours to finish a work of art and sells them for anything between INR40,000-80,000.
The tough part? Drawing nature. Bandenawaz says that painting nature often demands intricacies that foot painting doesn't always afford a differently-abled artist

In his formative years, being differently abled meant a social exclusion that often wreaks havoc to a child's mind. "Of course, I was teased. If there was a group of four people talking and I joined, they'd go away. Eventually, I stopped attending social gatherings to avoid embarrassment."
Today, one of his personal triumphs, that he feels outshine professional ones, is that instead of seeking people, they seek him. While family support definitely helped, it is his wife Rabanbi who has been a constant source of strength. It was pretty much love at first sight when, a few years ago, Bandenawaz went to his native village to meet Rabanbi. The latter's family wasn't convinced about their daughter's decision. "She actually told them, 'Everyone marries a supposedly normal person. I want to marry the man I love'." Today, that marriage has resulted in a companionship where Rabanbi is as much a part of Bandenawaz's artistic process as his feet. "From taking out my brushes to arranging canvases, she is there to help me with everything."
As he prepares to showcase his works in Dubai, the excitement is palpable. While painting nature per se may not be his forte, Bandenawaz hopes to capture the glittering landscape of Dubai. "I may have been born disabled, but art has enabled me to live my dream." - Anamika Chatterjee
To watch these inspiring artists demonstrate their ability with a paint brush, head on down to the AccessAbilities Expo from November 5 to 7, Halls 5, 6 & 7 of Dubai World Trade Center. For more information, log on to www.www.accessabilitiesexpo.com

By Maheshpreet Kaur Narula

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