Speaking through art

June 3, 2013 , by Supriya Rai, Leave your thoughts
Speaking through art » My Dreams Mag
Photo: Nilesh Singh
Namuma Shahi lost her ability to speak and hear at the age of five. But she found a way to communicate through art. Shahi is one of those enormously talented and genuinely nice people you can’t help but like.

Namuna Shahi speaks through her paintings: It’s her voice.

An aspiring painter with a burgeoning portfolio—she does not discard any of her works—Shahi’s story is inspirational. Perhaps it is the perfect antidote to all the disheartening sorrowful stories we hear of Nepalese struggling in the U.K. 

Born in Lamjung in western Nepal and raised in Kathmandu, the 20-year old, currently a second year student at University for the Creative Arts in Surrey, lost her hearing and speaking abilities at the age of five to a bout of severe high fever. Shahi was removed from ‘regular’ school and sent to the ‘School for Deaf’ where she excelled in her classes. Meanwhile, she also developed a close-knit relationship with crayons and colours.

Shahi used the skills she was developing well into her daily life. She decorated and dyed the walls of her house with artwork—flowers, mountains, and houses.

But growing up with a disability, the budding artist who now lives in Basingstoke, northeast of Hampshire, speaks in her sign language about the difficulties and challenges of living in Nepal.

An insensitive societal attitude towards disabled people and lack of information or awareness about artists and the art field were some of the barriers Shahi had to overcome.

“In Nepal, I didn’t even know that there are deaf artists,” Shahi says with the help of her interpreter who accompanies her when she needs.

Schooling in Nepal was not without its limitations too. Her interest in art, as it appeared, would remain only a hobby. But the situation changed when her family moved to the U.K. in 2007.

But it was not an easy transition. A new place came along with its set of challenges. Shahi was not able to communicate properly as the sign language in Britain differed from what she used in Nepal. British Sign Language (BSL) uses two hands to express and communicate whereas in Nepal they mostly use one hand. Her parents (ex-Gurkha) were equally new to the country. Though they could not do a lot to help her adapt, Shahi credits her parents for their continual support.

But it was her willpower and sheer interest to learn that helped Shahi to overcome her difficulties. She tells us that the BSL books in her local library and YouTube videos aided in her learning process. Meanwhile, making friends and finding people who could relate to her turned out to be the tougher task for the newcomer.

“Life was in a pause mode,” Shahi uses her hands as her interpreter speaks for us.

But her life took a positive turn after she started attending a mixed hearing school in Basingstoke. There she met other Nepali deaf students and an interpreter who taught her British Sign Language.

The resources, facilities, services, and opportunities available to the hearing impaired community in U.K. meant the horizon significantly widened for Shahi. She found an abundance of inspiration in the hallways of buildings and displays in the numerous museums and galleries in London. It was the push she needed.

She was, at last, well placed to pursue her passion for art and that is exactly what the aspiring artist did next. Enrolled for a BA in Fine Arts, till date she has already exhibited her works in two year-end exhibitions at her university.

When the topic of disability dominated the conversation at one point, Shahi poignantly explains that paintings do not discriminate.

“You cannot tell just from looking at a painting if the painter cannot hear or is missing a limb,” she says.

When asked if ever her disability has hindered her craft, Shahi speculates that it might have actually helped her become a better artist as she can concentrate solely on her thoughts and concepts. Such optimism is a breath of fresh air in this predisposed culture of whining and limitless complains we subscribe to.

Browsing through her collection helps understand her passion more. It is remarkable to see how physical limitations melt away when they are stood before a canvass with a brush in hand—in Shahi’s work, in her imagination and creativity.

 “Paintings express emotions without words,” she adds as she shows us some of her work. Her favourite is titled ‘Birth of the Tree.’

Inspired by nature and details of daily life, Shahi’s paintings are realistic and honest manifestations of her view of the world. Skilful mix of colours and confident brush strokes bring these inanimate paintings to life. It is exactly this freedom to experiment with colours, textures, and techniques with paintings that made her favour this form of expression over others.

And she wants to stick to this form. Her immediate goal is to graduate and become an art teacher.  She also has a wish list for the future: The young artist intends to work to encourage an art movement in the hearing impaired community, work with a charity that children with disability to arts, and volunteer her time teaching the basics of arts to similarly challenged children in Nepal. She also plans to travel globally to collaborate or work with other artists like herself.

A smile spreads across Shahi’s face at the thought of this possibility—a reminder of how much work there still needs to be done to encourage art in the disabled diaspora.

A true fighter who fought with the adversities of life and emerged victorious, she offers a final thought, “If I can overcome disparity regardless of my disability, then anyone can.”

(Photos: Nilesh  Singh/ Keshav Maharjan/ Namuna Shahi)

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