March - April 2002   
  Vol. 2 No.2   
Know Your Founders Oddities, Eccentricities, Etc. Of Enduring Interest Corporate Commentary Editorial

Mouth and Foot 
Painting Artists

In their motto: “Please, no pity? the founder generation of mouth and foot painting artists precluded false reactions of critics and the public.Respect for their achievements was demanded.



Arnulf E Stegmann
Arnulf S. Stegmann, founder of the Association of mouth and Foot Painting Artists.

Hariram Kohli at work
Hariram Kohli at work

It was supposed to be a farewell get-together for 22-year-old Naidu Elangovan, an administrator in the Indian Air Force to be posted at Kanpur. But fate had something else for him. So high were his spirits that he felt like celebrating with his friends at a picnic spot at Batala in Punjab. He decided to swim and dived into the canal. Unfortunately, Elangovan had miscalculated its depth. He hit the bottom of the canal and severely injured his spinal cord. In that split second, Elangovan, a youngster at the threshold of a promising future, turned into a tetraplegic. This sad tragedy happened in the year 1970, which he considers the darkest days of his life. The very thought of his inability to support his aged parents and younger sister, financially and physically, threw him into gloom. Did he give up on life?

Hariram Kohli, an ex-Air Forceman, too, will never forget the fateful day on December 16, 1970. Kohli joined the Indian Air Force in 1970 at the age of 20 as a Ground Training Instructor and was posted to Belgaum in Karnataka. Being a trained gymnast, he was demonstrating a somersault to airforce jawans during the Inter Squadron Sports Meet. He slipped and injured his neck and got paralysed neck downwards. What did the future hold for Kohli?

When Elangovan was at the Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre at Khadki, Pune, Nurse Captain Shakuntala helped him a great deal to cope with his severe depression. She counselled him and encouraged him to turn to mouth painting. To divert himself from his problems, one day Elangovan mustered courage and held a pen in his mouth and tried to write. Within a week the scribbling became legible and this boosted his morale. Soon he graduated to writing letters to his family and friends. The next step was trying to draw.

deer in snow
Deer in the snow.(Watercolour)
Farm in a lagoon
Farm in a lagoon.(Tempera)

Surprisingly, Elangovan's major source of inspiration was not Capt. Shakuntala, but Hariram  Kohli whom we met at the same hospital. kohli, too, had gone through bouts of depression at the paraplegic Centre in Pune and was persuaded to take up painting. It seemed impossible then to hold the brush between his teeth and paint. But his first attempt filled him with hope and excitement. He showed it to the Centre's Superintendent, Lt,Col.B.K.Tambe, who equally was happy to share the joy at his new-found talent.Tambe immediately got the colour pencils and paper for Kohli to nurture his nascent artistic efforts. Kohli's long hours of practice paid him rich dividends and he blossomed into an artist par excellence. Soon it gave him purpose in life.

But this was not at all easy task for both Elangovan and Kohli. Infact a strenous and tedious one as the distance between them and the canvas was barely six inches. To top it all, to paint with the a brush between their lips caused further pain. There was tremendous stress to their eyes, often making then watery. But isn't life all about overcoming obstacles successfully? Both Elangovan and Kohli gradually reconciled to their fate. The best of doctors said that there was no cure but to endure. Life passed by them by the remained as bystanders on the sidelines. But painting saved them from dying of depression.

One Diwali Kohli received a card from a friend. Behind the card was written in bold:"MOUTH AND FOOT PAINTING ARTISTS" with and old proverb " When God closes one door he opens another...." Kohli's eyes lit up. He had approached various publishers for getting his paintings published, but in vain. he immediately approached the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (AMFPA) with a request to sell his paintings. His wish was granted. He had the talent and he joined the Association. That greeting card was the best gift Kohli could ever get in his life.

Elangovan got to know about the AMFPA not through Kohli but through a newspaper. Being a hobby painter himself, he immediately used this opportunity to approach them. The AMFPA was a godsend.

How did this international organisation start, I wondered. It all started way back in 1956 by a disabled German artist, Arnulf Erich Stegmann. Stegmann, born in Darmstadt on March 4, 1912, lost the use of his hands and arms due to poliomyelitis. His teachers soon recognised and furthered his talent to draw and paint. In a short time he could paint better than write. At a very early age he was Prize Pupil at the art school he attended. He studied at the Nuremberg Technical College of Typography and Industrial Art, was Prize Pupil at the Studio of Erwin v. Kormendy and Hanns Gerstacker. When barely 20 years old, his work was exhibited in several countries.

According to Dr. Richard Hiepe, Art Historian: “Stegmann grasped very early that the individual, handicapped artist (like himself, who would have achieved personal success anyway), gives away his best and greatest opportunities if he does not demonstrate, together with other similarly afflicted artists, before the whole world, what is exemplary in such an artist’s existence.?br>
Stegmann, whose works were comparable to able-bodied painters and artists, took the initiative and made it his lifelong work to build up the alliance between these artists and to represent their interests worldwide.

The AMFPA was born in 1956. With its headquarters in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, AMFPA’s early members were predominantly German or Swiss artists who painted without the use of their hands. The Association began with 7 members and has come a long way from its humble inception. Although in India there are only 9 members, worldwide the Association has a strength of 700 members.

As a mark of high degree of frankness and respect for the disabled artists an important paragraph was included in the statutes on March 20, 1957, the day when the first General Meeting of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists took place: “The AMFPA adopts a neutral from a religious, ideological and political point of view. Any preference or prejudice because of the
religious, ideological or political beliefs of a member is not therefore permissible.?/b>

Alpine huts
Alpine huts. (Oil)
Evening at a lake
Evening at a lake.(Oil)

According to Robert Felix Weisinger of the Mumbai Branch of AMFPA, whose father was a close friend of the founder-president Stegmann, and was given the responsibility of AMFPA’s Indian operations: “Perhaps the best way to describe how the MFPA is managed is to call it a ‘democratic cooperative.?The delegate convention is held regularly. All the members of the convention are disabled artists. Able-bodied professionals, though vital, are kept to a minimum.?In India an exhibition was organised in October 1962 at the Jehangir Art Gallery. The inauguration being done by Y.B. Chavan, the then Chief Minister of the State of Maharashtra, the exhibition was a huge success with over 10,000 visitors!

In their motto: “Please, no pity? the founder generation of mouth and foot painting artists precluded false reactions of critics and the public. Respect for their achievements was demanded from the public. Charities and donations were politely refused. The Association and its artists have come a good way along this path in the past 45 years, which has helped them gain a lot of self-esteem. In India, especially, the AMFPA could have easily registered itself as a trust so that taxes and duties could be waived off. But the spirit of self-respect and self-reliance was instilled in these brave heroes, who refuse to be discriminated.

Any person who has lost his or her hands and paints by holding the brush in the foot or mouth is entitled to be a member of the AMFPA. The work of the artist is examined by a panel comprising senior AMFPA artists. Even if the work does not reach the required standard, the artist is awarded a substantial grant to pay for art tuitions, which in Indian rupees comes to Rs. 5,000/- per month. It is important to note here that an artist sitting in a posh city like New York is treated at par with an artist in a remote village in India, thanks to the statute passed in 1957. Ramakrishnan, one of the Association’s foot painters from Mumbai, was given training at the J.J. School of Arts. He studied painting on canvas, oil painting, colour combinations ?and got a certificate from the School. His paintings improved considerably, which the Association approved, and, finally, he became a member. You appreciate his paintings, and Ramakrishnan is the happiest man in the world ?a tiny smile on his face, the joy in his eyes, the pride swelling in his 75-year-old father’s heart. Thus a grant given by the Association enables the artist to concentrate on improving the quality of his painting rather than worry about his monthly expenditure and his inabi-lity of making two ends met.

The work is reviewed periodically and when he or she attains the necessary level of expertise, the artist is admitted into the Association as a full member. During each review they see whether the quality of painting has improved. Accordingly, the artists are graded and their monthly allowance increased, which can go to even Rs. 15,000/- per month. The paintings made by the artist are then chosen for calendars and greeting cards, and also sent to publishers all over the world. All the profits from sale go to provide the artists?monthly salaries. On face value, the salaries appear quite good. But these artists have to bear heavy medical expenditure, plus expenditure on buying material for painting, heavy travelling expenditure (for themselves and their helpers) as and when they are called to attend exhibitions?/font>

The AMFPA gives the physically challenged artists a chance to realise their own potential. It does this by organising a programme of exhibitions, by arranging sales of original works and also by negotiating copyright deals with publishers for producing cards and calendars from these works. Says Girish Kabra, Director, AMFPA, Mumbai: “We are very grateful to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation who have given space to our Association and many other NGOs at all their branches throughout India. This has helped us not just to promote our products, but also to create awareness about our Association and the skills our artists possess. Mr. Abhijit Bhave, Manager, Borivili Branch, was so co-operative, that he even called up all his premium clients to come and have a look at our work! Even security arrangements were taken well care of.

“On the other hand, there are people who want to call our artists and give them a small get-together and entertainment programme. This becomes an expense to the Association, the funds of which come from the sale of artists?products, and is not acceptable to the artists. The AMFPA, India Chapter, is looking forward to involve big corporate personalities as they are the ones to pull educated crowds as well as other corporates, and create more awareness and support the Association financially thereby increasing revenue generation in the long run. But how to reach them is the question. Right now we are at the mercy of people who give us stalls in exhibitions, which cost over a lakh. I think the best support these artists can get is by appreciation of their art in exhibitions or by buying their products.?Abroad the AMFPA has its own galleries where exhibitions are regularly organised thereby increasing profits. It also has the support of local publishers who help the Association.

Elangovan, Kohli and many other mouth and foot painters, stood firm in the face of all adversity. Most importantly, they didn’t wait for the arms of gods (charities) to support them. They strove hard to become accomplished mouth painters. In 1978 Elangovan’s paintings were exhibited in Bal Gandharva Theatre, Pune, by a social worker. The exhibition was presided over by Sharad Pawar, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Kohli has also sold more than 5,000 of his original paintings, mostly flower and animal themes, and has been awarded numerous awards by various organisations for his paintings. He believes that the desire has to come from within. Even abroad, his cards are much in demand. Earlier, the same people at the Paraplegic Centre, who would sneer when he wanted them to handle his correspondence, now sing his praises and offer help. What’s more, he even writes letters for other handicapped persons!

The AMFPA is an extended international family, which ensures their artistic development and a large degree of financial independence. Remarks Girish: “Otherwise what would they have done? They would be just lying in one corner of the room doing nothing. Financial independence is most important for them. It is a human tendency to take good care of a patient in the initial stages and then
pay more attention to the breadwinner of the family as that earning member has to go to office ?and the patient can wait. This gives them a feeling of neglect and uselessness. They fall into a depression as they become totally dependent on others, become cynical and even feel like commiting suicide. The Association has given them reason to live. They have a reason to get up every morning and do something. They too have a target to meet ?a sale of a minimum of 12 paintings every year. They are earning their own bread and butter and not living on anybody’s pity.? The late Marlyse Tovae, Past President of the AMFPA, in the Introduction of the book, entitled 30 Years AMFPA, writes: “As President of the AMFPA my aim is and will remain to continue to provide mouth and foot painting artists all over the world with opportunities enabling them to secure their existence by their own efforts and to develop freely in their artistic work.?/b> The Association shall elect its new President soon.

The organised efforts of AMFPA have indeed changed the lives of these artists. It has brought back smiles on their faces by showing them light at the end of the tunnel. It has proved to the world how thin the line is between the able and the disabled.

Good days and bad days come in everybody’s lives. Today Kohli feels that disability to him is more a blessing than a curse. Without this disability, he would perhaps be just another common man caught in a web of mundane chores. Artists like Elangovan, Kohli, Ramakrishnan, and many others, whose lives took a sharp turn in a split second, are true fighters. They are the ones who have transcended all barriers of human endeavour and emerged as true heroes. Thanks to the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, there is nothing like the word “impossible?in their dictionary. The determination to overcome all odds is seen on their faces as they labour over every stroke. Do not simply brush them aside, for they have talent in abundance.

Children of a lesser God? Certainly not. They are children of the one and only true God ?and worthier ones too.

Rashna Ardesher