23-year-old becomes the voice of hearing impaired artists
It is said love has no language. Smriti Nagpal’s two 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 herself to learn the sign language to be the voice of her siblings.
At 23, Smriti is the CEO and Founder of Atulyakala, a social enterprise that is empowering deaf artists through design partnership and creative collaborations. “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.
It has been estimated that there are several million hearing impaired in India (between 0.9 and 14 million). 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 one 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.
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 the society. After some years while she was enrolled in her Bachelor of Business Administration, she got a call for an audition in a TV channel. They needed an interpreter of sign language for their news program and Smriti was their choice. So while she was studying, she became responsible for the Hearing Impaired Morning Bulletin for the Doordarshan Network.
This job opened a door to a lot of opportunities which gave her the chance to understand her passion to solve problems in the deaf community. After seven months from her graduation she heard a story which motivated her to take act. “I met a senior artist who had a masters’ degree in art. 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 is a for-profit social enterprise that is creating opportunities for deaf artists to grow, learn, share and live a life of dignity and pride. They make profit from selling online and offline art pieces done by hearing impaired artists, but they proudly differentiate from other NGOs. “Their creativity is usually kept in a closet. We are giving them freedom to go out of this closet and spread their creativity. And we do that by putting their name in the front. 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,” states Smriti.
AtulyakalaAtulyakala is also involved in other projects. “We are also working in important collaborations. 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. They do not want to limit their 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,” adds Smriti.
Even though she spent her entire life with hearing impaired people, Smriti is living a great learning experience. “I know them since 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 an endless potential, 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,” states Smriti, adding, “Moreover, now I’m much more patient and less frustrated than before. They just need someone to bridge the gap.”
Atulyakala is a very young startup that started 10 months back, but they have a really clear vision for their future. “We want to have Atulyakala 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. Moreover, we want to continue the sensitisation campaign we are running and the collaborations with mainstream artists. This community can’t feel left out anymore,” says Smriti.
Besides receiving a lot of recognition for her work, Smriti had the chance to interpret the Republic Day Parade this year in Indian sign language on national television for the deaf community of India. This was the first such broadcast in 64 years.
Smriti’s words to young changemakers: “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.”