Walking past an exhibit at Goa’s Serendipity Arts Festival, a rectangular panel arrests my attention. Grey, black and white, it is criss-crossed with resinous lines and populated with Warli figures. At the bottom are the words “Please Touch”. Is this one of the curated artworks, I wonder for a second, as I trace the slightly raised forms on the rectangle. Stepping back, I realise that the answer is both yes and no. The dots headlining the invitation to touch reveal the panel’s purpose – the original phrase is in Braille and the English is so that sighted visitors can understand. The panel is in fact a tactile version of an artwork I have just encountered on the neighbouring wall – an image from Fields of Sight, a collaborative series by photographer Gauri Gill and Warli artist Rajesh Vangad. As I make my way through the festival, I remain alert for more such panels. In another gallery, there is a metallic rendering of a photograph of a figure in the classical tribhanga pose. Elsewhere is a crocheted cluster of seaside staples such as shells, seaweed and anemone. The next time I pass Fields of Sight, a group of young people is drifting towards the panel, guided by someone who knows all about it.

Siddhant Shah, a heritage architect and accessibility consultant, is the co-founder (along with his mother Anisha) of Access for All, a Mumbai-based organisation working across India to make cultural spaces like museums, contemporary art galleries and historic sites accessible to people with disabilities. Access for All is responsible for the tactile panels placed at various locations at the Serendipity Arts Festival, and I spoke to Shah between walks and workshops. His interest in accessibility is personal: frustrated by his partially sighted mother’s exclusion from cultural places and events, Shah decided to find a way in. It wasn’t easy in a country that has a long way to go towards disability inclusion at both social and legal levels. “In India, the conversation around access for people with disabilities begins and ends with wheelchairs and toilets,” he said. “But apart from infrastructural access, there is a need to provide intellectual and neurodiverse access.”

Shah started his journey in 2015, producing a Braille guide with tactile plates and a 3D map of Jaipur for the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum at City Palace in Jaipur. Within the first couple of years of operation, Access for All partnered with National Museum in New Delhi as well as with Delhi Art Gallery for the India Art Fair. Perhaps anticipating an official shift in the Indian state’s attitude towards disabled citizens with the passing of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, the National Museum opened a tactile gallery called Anubhav in 2015 (in collaboration with UNESCO and Saksham Trust, a visual disability rights NGO). It claims to have on display “22 tactile replicas of museum objects…ranging from archaeological finds, sculptures, tactile impressions of paintings, utilitarian objects, ethnographic objects and decorative arts”.

A textured version of a photograph at the Serendipity Arts Festival. Courtesy: Access for All.

Another organisation that contributed knowledge and labour to the Anubhav gallery is the Centre of Excellence in Tactile Graphics. A laboratory run from 2013 to 2018 under the aegis of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi’s AssisTech research group, the Centre of Excellence in Tactile Graphics was supported by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. M Balakrishnan, professor of computer science and engineering at IIT Delhi and co-founder of AssisTech, says that for Anubhav, the Centre “made many diagrams, of old coins and old miniature paintings”. He explained, “3D printing can be done at different levels [of projection]. Normal tactile graphics are produced using basically only one level but to replicate museum artefacts, we use different levels to impart depth, relief and texture.” Producing museum-grade visuo-tactility was just one of the objectives of his Centre. Its chief purpose was to innovate towards translating for touch visual information of a type more commonplace than aesthetic forms – scientific, mathematical and cartographic diagrams.

Balakrishnan says the Centre was founded out of AssisTech’s interest in making a self-learning manual for their electronic mobility aid, for which explanatory illustrations were required. “We realised that there were no production facilities for tactile diagrams,” he said. “In texts produced by Braille presses, diagrams were omitted. Additionally, mass production would be very expensive, at Rs 150 a page. Visually-disabled students in India were thus not able to opt for subjects like science, maths, geography or economics, which rely on diagrams.”

Echoing Balakrishnan’s point about a lacuna in low-cost assistive technology for visually-impaired communities in India as late as the mid-2010s, Shah asserts that when they started out, Access for All had no real references in India to draw from. Making matters worse, materials and technologies weren’t readily available. “Everything was so expensive,” Shah recalled. “At first, we had to come up with ingenious solutions. Instead of 3D printing, we worked with mehndi artists, providing them with polymers and asking them to create raised designs. Over the years, we have involved grass weavers in creating Braille text and woodwork artisans in producing tactile artworks.” Gesturing to the red grass hoops swinging from my ears, he said, “Even your earrings are giving me ideas. Of course, today we have our own 3D printing press.”

A tactile artwork at the Serendipity Arts Festival. Courtesy: Access for All.

Intricate process

Rendering visual forms into tactile formats is an intricate process. There are, for starters, distinct differences between programming visual disability access for government museums versus private modern and contemporary art exhibitions. “It is easier to work with museum objects,” Shah said. “In the case of modern and contemporary artworks, often the focus is on the artists’ ideas rather than the physical expression.” The sheer range of mediums and discourses that India’s vibrant contemporary arts ecosystem hosts presents another challenge to accessibility-oriented curators. Shah points out that artists’ involvement is often key to making artworks sensorially available to the most number of people. He gives the example of the 2018 retrospective of artist Madhvi Parekh at Delhi Art Gallery, Madhvi Parekh: The Curious Seeker: “We made toys out of the characters in her paintings, stitching them with kantha, thus bringing her work to a new group of people. Artists who integrate accessibility into their practice are catalysts and facilitators of different kinds of storytelling.” Apart from creators, various mediums too can accommodate needs – Shah says that for visually impaired individuals, for instance, captions with text-to-audio enablement, video works accompanied with audio transcription, or artificial intelligence-based projects that allow activation using touch can make a difference.

Once its research mandate was fulfilled in 2018, the Centre of Excellence in Tactile Graphics transferred its know-how to a nonprofit start-up incubated at the IIT Delhi campus – Raised Lines Foundation, now located in Noida. Its Head of Design Lipika emphasises that tactile design is primarily about “functionality and comprehension”. She outlines the steps in the Foundation’s design process – assessing the necessity of tactile conversion, simplifying condensing rich visual data into designs that communicate essential information, ensuring proportionate scaling as well as consistent and clear labelling, and testing with intended users to gain feedback. Using software like CorelDRAW and even MS Word and MS PowerPoint for basic designs, Lipika and her team create tactile diagrams meant to be comprehended “segment by segment, contrasted with sighted users who perceive diagrams as a whole picture”. In the absence of a standardised framework for tactile design in India, the best practices set by two sources provide guidance: the Braille Authority of North America and the American Printing House for the Blind.

A tactile toy depicting a Madhvi Parekh artwork from her 2018 retrospective, ‘Madhvi Parekh: The Curious Seeker’, at Delhi Art Gallery. Courtesy: Access for All.

At Access for All, prototyping is based on understanding the artwork and the artist’s vision before deciding which features of the artwork need to be made available to the touch – for example its shape, texture or weight. “We can obtain the desired shape with 3D printing,” said Shah, “and we play around with different weights and textures. We ask [intended users] questions around weight, and refer to a materials palette or texture board.” Once the work’s conceptual basis is discerned, and its defining characteristics and finer details worked out, a 3D model is created using SketchUp software, followed by the actual printing and then laser etching. In the case of the Centre of Excellence in Tactile Graphics, the method innovated for producing tactile visuals combines 3D-printed moulds with a process called thermoforming. Raised Lines Foundation’s Head of Operations Kunal Kwatra explains the process of producing tactile graphics for public and private sector clients such as the National Council of Educational Research and Training and Intel. “Once the design is finalised, we make a mould using a 3D printer and place it inside the thermoforming machine along with special plastic-like Brailon thermoform sheets,” he said. “The heating and suction mechanism of the thermoforming machine causes the mould’s impression to form on the Brailon sheet, producing the diagram, later to be merged with Braille text in publications.”

Losses and limitations

As with any kind of translation, there are losses and limitations. The challenges of making pictorial qualities knowable through touch are manifold. According to Balakrishnan, a major problem is that of resolution: “In tactile graphics, the resolution is much lower than in visual diagrams since it is not meant to be seen.” Drawing an analogy, he continued, “If I draw a map of India on an A4 sheet, the North Eastern states wouldn’t be distinguishable and would need to be represented in an inset. The problem and process is similar in the case of tactile graphics.” Another issue is that of colour. Balakrishnan explains that colour is replaced by tactile shading in the form of dots, bars and squares – “shade palettes”. Kwatra describes these as “a set of textures” you can use to delineate different elements in a diagram: “Say, in a map of India, if you wanted to show water bodies such as oceans and seas, you could designate them through a certain texture.” The limits of commensurability between the visual and the tactile modes are most apparent in the case of complex representational art such as miniature paintings where the thought of simplification by removing “unnecessary” elements is sacrilegious. Speaking about the Centre of Excellence in Tactile Graphics’ work for Anubhav, Kwatra cedes that appreciating fine visual art of this calibre can be difficult even for the sighted but offers up the Centre’s solutions nonetheless: “Apart from substituting textures for colours, we try to provide information and directions to help those navigating the tactile version to orient themselves – whether to touch from left to right, bottom to top and so on.”

Courtesy: Centre of Excellence in Tactile Graphics.

How are visually impaired art enthusiasts and STEM students responding to, or contributing to, these interventions? Shah says that currently, 15% of Access for All’s employees have visual disabilities. In the initial years, the learning curve was steep. During their India Art Fair edition of Abhas, a tactile walk programme curated with Delhi Art Gallery, they gained insight from its intended public. “We had been making standard 8x8 tactile replicas of visual artworks, but then it was pointed out that artists don’t all make art of the same size,” he said. “We were also told by the people who engaged with the art through touch that since the accompanying text was not in Braille, they could not read it.” Raised Lines Foundation has yet to hire from the community. For now, it tests material with the National Centre for Assistive Health Technology at IIT Delhi and the visually impaired staff at the Saksham Trust.

In terms of the bigger picture, the obstacles to greater visual accessibility seem to be structural – for one, the lack of a nationally-recognised guiding framework for tactile design, tailored to the Indian sociocultural context where appropriate. At a political and civic level, in an image-dominant age, access to visual information and knowledge is crucial. In an essay titled How tactile graphics can help end image poverty, New York Public Library’s blind Assistive Technology Coordinator Chancey Fleet makes a case for “nonvisual access to images”. As evidenced by their convergence at the National Museum, the seemingly disparate spheres of art and science may perhaps be mutually useful in developing such an access and a more inclusive visual commons. Balakrishnan points out that this may be the first generation of visually impaired Indians to access tactile graphics in their textbooks and attain tactile literacy, promising the pursuit of STEM at advanced levels and future innovation in the realm of visual accessibility. The new technologies and iconographies of tactile graphic production being devised at places like the Centre of Excellence in Tactile Graphics may be harnessed for producing tactile replicas of artworks that offer meaningful aesthetic experiences. At the same time, as organisations like Access for All open up cultural spaces to disabled communities, art exhibitions and curatorial projects may come to be conceived with accessibility in mind. As Shah asserted, “Inclusivity shouldn’t be thought of as a token add-on. It has to be kept in mind at the point of designing spaces and organising events.”

A tactile artwork at the Serendipity Arts Festival. Courtesy: Access for All.