“Maybe my way of communicating through sign made me more in tune with my body and how it moved. Who knows? I just know when I saw a stage for the first time; I wanted to be on it.”
There are between 0.9 million and 14 million hearing impaired people in India. Perhaps out of every five hearing impaired in the world one lives in India, making it the country with the largest number of people with this disability. Despite the numbers, there are numerous problems faced by the community. The main problem is the lack of education. There are just two ways for them to communicate: Writing and sign language. Lack of structure and policies make it difficult for them to learn to write properly.
Meet Smriti Nagpal, 24, CEO and founder, Atulyakala, a for-profit social enterprise that is creating opportunities for deaf artists to grow, learn, share and live a life of dignity and pride. Love, it is said, has no language.Smriti Nagpal’s older siblings were hearing impaired. But this did not stop the three of them from communicating their feelings for each other like in any other family.Smriti took it upon her to learn sign language to be the voice of her siblings. “I grew up with two elder siblings who are 10 years older than me. The only way to communicate with them was to learn sign language that sort of became my mother tongue. Learning it was very important for my family since I was the bridge between my parents and my siblings,” says Smriti.
Smriti was witness to her siblings dealing with these issues, and when she turned 16 she volunteered at the National Association of Deaf, NAD. It was her way to give back to society. After some years while she was enrolled in her Bachelor of Business Administration, she got a call for an audition in a television channel. They needed someone who knew sign language for their news programme and Smriti was their choice.
So while she was studying, she became responsible for the Hearing Impaired Morning Bulletin on Doordarshan. This job opened a door to a lot of opportunities which gave her the chance to understand her passion to solve problems of the deaf community. Seven months from graduation she heard a story which motivated her to take act. “I met a senior artist who had a masters’ degree in arts. Unfortunately, he was working in a NGO doing manual work. His talent was completely wasted! I came back home and did some research and knew that I had to do something about helping artists who are hearing impaired. So together with my friend Harshit, I decided to start Atulyakala. That artist who I met at the NGO joined our project,” says Smriti.
Atulyakala makes profit from selling online and offline art pieces created by hearing impaired artists. “Their creativity is usually kept in a closet. We are giving them true freedom to go out of this closet and spread their creativity. And we do that by putting their name in the front,” says Smriti.”We don’t want to employ deaf artists to empower the name of our brand; we want our brand to empower the name of deaf artists.” That’s why they sign every piece they create. We want them to feel that they are creating something on their own,” adds Smriti.”We now have a partnership with famous musicians to write the first song for the deaf community and we are doing the same for illustrations. We work with famous artists to empower deaf artists, and in a few months some of those collaborations will be published,” says Smriti.
Atulyakala does not want to limit its work with only deaf artists, but want to impact the entire deaf community. “We are also raising awareness about sign language. We believe that the change should start with educating the next generation, that’s why we are conducting different workshops in universities. We are also doing a handbook to explain to people the basics of sign language,” says Smriti.
Even though she spent her life with hearing impaired people, Smriti is living a great learning experience. “I know them for very long, but I was not working with them. They were friends and people to hang out with. Now, my point of view is different. “Working with them I understood that they have endless potential,” says Smriti, “but they are not confident about themselves. That is because of the mainstream attitude towards the disabled. People should understand they are not a minority, they are part of the world that cannot be excluded.”
Atulyakala started just two years ago, but its founders have a clear vision for its future.” We want to have it as a social enterprise that sells products made entirely by deaf people. To do this in the best way possible we need to create a strong brand, but obviously it is not just about the brand, but about the artists behind it.”
Atulyakala is based in the populous capital city of India, New Delhi which is the biggest market for its products. Although Smriti’s firm is a for profit social enterprise it has already had a huge impact on numerous hearing impaired people. It has helped give them a better quality life and positioned them to contribute more to society where they previously felt of little use. Even if Smriti herself does not yet know it, this is a story that is bound to inspire and change the lives of millions of people all over the world that she will never even meet in her lifetime. “ “Moreover, we want to continue the sensitization campaign we are running and the collaborations with mainstream artists. This community can’t feel left out anymore,” says Smriti. Besides receiving recognition for her work, Smriti had the chance to interpret the Republic Day Parade of 2014 in sign language on national television for India’s deaf community.
Smriti’s advice to young change makers: “Never give up on your dreams. I’m a dreamer. It’s important for people our age to dream and follow our heart. That’s the only thing that can move us forward.” It’s our duty to give something back to the community. This will give you so much happiness that you cannot imagine.” To do that you don’t have to be a social entrepreneur, you can simply do small things for people and society every day.”