Artwork in vibrant colours – from still life and landscapes to warli art – adorned the Mumbai Press Club this weekend. The exhibition featured the lockdown hobby of 30-year-old Sahil Baghdadi who turned to paint during the pandemic. The skills on display, however, would make you believe they were the works of a seasoned artist. It not only opened up a channel of communication for him but also a supplementary source of income.
Sahil was just a little over two years old when his parents Alka and Imtiaz, both media professionals, started hearing about “autism” from different experts – the family physician, a psychiatrist friend, and then a paediatrician. The word that was not even a part of their vocabulary until then didn’t really trouble them much. At the time, they thought it was just a disease and were ready to do whatever it would take to manage it. It was only after a friend gave them the book “Why Does Chris Do That” that Alka realised the extent of how this diagnosis would affect her family.
After a good cry, though, she got up, dusted her pants, and resolved to learn more about the condition. She even gave up her job to focus on taking care of her son. During the course of her reading, she came across an article on the subject in a newspaper. She went to the newspaper office, tracked down the reporter, and got in touch with the other parents mentioned in the article.
There was some respite in the knowledge that she was not the only parent in her situation. “The support system that we received from socialising with other parents was godsent. If we didn’t get that, we would all be a frustrated and angry bunch,” she says about the parental support groups that they have now been a part of for almost three decades.
Imtiaz is also grateful that both of their immediate families were supportive and accepting of Sahil’s condition, and would regularly pitch in to help with looking after him. It helped a lot as they worked on making the kid fairly independent. Eventually, he even found employment with the NGO Kshitij where adults with developmental disabilities are employed to make home decor items, chocolates, diyas, and paper bags among other things.
The parents say that Sahil had always had very fine motor skills, and would often draw as a child. In fact, he has such good visual memory that replicating any drawings he sees comes naturally to him. While he would be sketching and drawing on and off, filling entire sketchbooks, he started focusing more on improving his skills during the lockdown and it became his lockdown hobby. It was a way to bring a semblance of routine as the family’s daily schedule had gone haywire in the absence of outdoor activities.
After Alka posted a few of his works on social media, they received a lot of appreciation. The art pieces Sahil started making as a lockdown hobby were also a means of communication for him, according to Imtiaz. In fact, as he too is an artist, practicing painting became a way for the father and son to bond over.
More encouragement and praise, and a suggestion by a friend led them to organise a virtual exhibition of Sahil’s works. It was completely sold out in just two days straight! He also registered himself as an artist available for commissioned work on Atypical Advantage. The exhibition at Press Club was his first physical one, and several sales were on the inaugural day itself.
Alka says she wants to share Sahil’s story with all parents as a way to either engage, involve or even consider art as a means of income for other kids on the spectrum. She acknowledges that her son is non-verbal but his comprehension is good. “I often think about the way we treat people with autism. They understand the world around them better than we think they do. They must feel so hurt and helpless to hear us say hurtful or incorrect things about them,” she rues. She feels that it is all the crueler as the people at the other end of those hurtful and hateful comments neither have a choice nor a way to communicate their feelings. Being kind, treating them well, and ensuring they have a choice in matters concerning them is very important, she says.