Austrian artist Werner Dornik came to India in 1977 as a young hippie “to promote love and peace and seek enlightenment.” However, the course of his life changed when he met some leprosy afflicted people in Varanasi. “They were ostracised by society and were too poor to afford treatment. I spent two sleepless nights, wondering how I could help them. An inner voice nudged me to do something concrete. And then it dawned on me what my life’s calling was: To help these people find their self-worth,” he says. Dornik recently curated From Pain To Paint, an exhibition of paintings by the artists of Bindu Art School that helps leprosy patients.

“Soon after I came to India as a hippie, I found that most hippies were drug addicts and they spent their time in various ashrams waiting for enlightenment. They behaved rudely with beggars and the poor. Where was the love that they were supposed to promote, I wondered.

I got disillusioned,” says Dornik, recalling his Varanasi days.

“The leprosy affected people needed 10 euros for their treatment, but they didn’t have any money,” he says. Dornik returned to India in 1978 with a firm resolve to help poor leprosy patients live a dignified life. “Initially, I sold my paintings and photographs to collect money exclusively for their treatment. By the year 2000, I was able to sponsor treatment for people in many colonies including Khandwa and Indore. Soon, the treatment was made free by the World Health Organization and the Indian government.

“I still had 5,000 euros left in my account. For four years, I did not touch the money. I spent the time reflecting on who I was as an artist and what I can do. I realised that I wanted to change the way society looked at leprosy.” Dornik met Padma Venkataraman, the daughter of former President R Venkataraman, who has been active in the rehabilitation of people with leprosy. Soon the idea of setting up an art school emerged. In 2005, they set up the Bindu Art School in Bharatpuram, in Chennai. The school uses art to change the lives of leprosy patients. By selling their paintings, the students become financially independent, instead of resorting to begging.

“The students of Bindu are now accomplished artists. But when we started, they had never been to school or even held a pencil. They were shy and self-conscious. They didn’t know what to draw. I said to them to sit in meditation for 10 minutes and a picture will emerge in their mind. Slowly they opened up. As their mental canvas expanded, the drawing papers became colourful. In art, life experience is more important than technique. So I encouraged them to paint whatever came to their mind,” says Dornik.

Do their paintings reflect their suffering? “People with leprosy have undergone so much pain in life. They have been thrown out by families and villages, didn’t get jobs, had disfigured hands and faces. To overcome such trauma, you work inwardly. And when you work from the inside, you create beauty within. I always see their inner beauty and I say to them that they must show their inner beauty to the world. As there is spiritual beauty in them, they do not paint anything negative and depressing.”
How have their works been received? “Some of their works have been exhibited abroad and have been appreciated. Theirs is art that gives. Many artists I know are particular about the galleries they choose, the pricing of their works and the VIP guests they invite to their shows. I would call them selfish, but these people have lost everything. They have no ego. They paint without expectations. Their inner beauty adds special energy to their paintings,” says Dornik.

About the therapeutic effect of art on these patients, Dornik says, “After two years, many of my students came and thanked me. I asked for what, and they said, ‘For the first time in life, we can sleep at night and we don’t take so many medicines now.’ Initially in the school, they did not talk much as they were self conscious. Now they laugh and share jokes. They have been invited to talk on stage and their works have been reviewed in the media. This has boosted their confidence. They know that positive thinking has changed their lives. Their works have been exhibited in Switzerland, Austria, Kolkata, Jaipur and many other places. Now they are keen to go to Singapore to exhibit their work.”

Dornik says working with students at Bindu has been a journey of awakening for him.

“Everyone is searching for God and truth. I learnt it in my own way that I have to remove the ‘I’ as it was built on illusion. If you can see through the illusion, you understand what life means, then you generate love and you act without motive, without expectations.

“Earlier, as an artist, I was running around, exhibiting my work in New York, London and other places, expecting recognition, but in this project, we decided that we will not ask for anything. We will just paint for the joy of it. If you work with such an attitude, good things will come to you. The 60 exhibitions that we held in the last 15 years came to us. Can there be a better reward? If you are open without a goal, then things will come to you, but if you are focused only on one goal, you don’t let good things come to you.

Age is no bar for these enthusiastic artists. The youngest student at Bindu is 24 years old and the oldest was 96-year-old P Veerasamy. “When Veerasamy started learning, he was 92 and he was one of our most enthusiastic students. Many people said there was no point in urging such an old person to paint; that instead, I should help younger people. For decades they have suffered, and now, in the twilight of their life, if they get joy, why should we deny that to them? It is not the question of age,” says Dornik.