The first thing that strikes you are his eyes. The contorted limbs, bent body, the ubiquitous wheelchair all fade into the background like a camera zooming in on one aspect and blurring everything around it. N Ramakrishnan's eyes positively shine with enthusiasm as he comes to greet us at his sister's apartment in Ajman. He swings his wheelchair around and goes straight to the canvas he has ready, to paint for his guests.
Enthusiasm is, in essence, the secret of 42-year-old Ramakrishnan's success, although fate dealt him a particularly raw deal after he contracted a virulent form of jaundice just three days after his birth. A wrong diagnosis led to the onset of cerebral palsy, which crippled most of his motor nerves. He was left unable to move from the neck down. Every little thing he learnt to do was a huge task.
However, in 1984, at the age of 15, he discovered that he had some control over two of the toes on his right foot. Determined to make the most of what he had, Ramakrishnan, who's better known as RK, began using "the two toes I can control'' to hold a paint brush, and soon started creating amazing works of art.
Six years later, in 1990, RK became the first Indian member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (AMFPA) and now receives a modest stipend from the body. The special artist, who is unable to speak clearly due to his condition (his helper Mani, who has been with him for nine years, acts as a translator), has held exhibitions in several cities across India, and one in Taiwan, almost all of which have been sellouts.
Hailing from Mumbai in India, RK was in Ajman recently to visit his sister, Vimala. It is obvious he enjoys travelling as he eagerly describes the adventures he has had on his first trip to the UAE. "I've seen so many new things here,'' he says, eyes sparkling.
His zest for life is evident when he talks about the desert safari he'd been on a few days before. What was the highlight? "Drive!" he shouts out. And? "Belly dancer!" he chortles.
RK moves around with the help of Mani. "He'll try to do everything himself," his helper says. "Even when he can't, he won't ask. We have to nag him to accept help. He has no demands and is quite self-contained."
RK's curiosity is evident in every action. He understands several languages including English, Hindi and Tamil (his mother tongue), and his IQ level is pretty high - 110. He even plays a mean game of chess, moving the pieces with his toes. And he's tickled when asked about his favourite actors - "Amitabh Bachchan, Kajol and Rani Mukherji", he pronounces painstakingly, repeating the names to ensure they were heard correctly.
The artist as a young man
"Even when we were very young, we knew he was different, and my mother used to insist that one of us should always be with him,'' recalls Vimala, a special needs teacher at the Manzil School for Special Needs. "We, of course, did not like that at the time because we wanted to be outdoors playing with our friends."
RK's parents - his father was a professor at the SIES College in Mumbai, while his mother was a school teacher - were unable to enrol him in a special-needs school because it was too far away. "So my father and mother decided to home-school him,'' says Vimala.
RK first realised he had a talent for art when his younger sister, Vanaja, started going to school. Late in the evenings, when she was busy with her homework, which usually involved drawing, painting or making collages, RK felt the urge to do the same. "He used to say, ‘Why can't I do it when she can?'" recalls Vimala.
His parents bought him art materials and soon RK began experimenting before a modified easel, using his toes to hold the brush.
Even though he never went to a regular school, RK learnt the English and Hindi alphabets from his parents. He enjoys reading, particularly the daily newspapers, and pores over them to check out the various art exhibitions that he makes a point of visiting with Mani.
But that doesn't mean he likes to mix work with vacations: "Last week I told him we could consider holding an exhibition of his paintings here and do you know what he said? ‘Let me think about it. I am here for a holiday, why do you want to make me work?!'" laughs Vimala. "Before coming to the UAE, he told me that I should take him to the Burj Al Arab and also up the Burj Khalifa," she continues. "Which we did. He went to Al Ain, up the Jebel Hafeet; he has also been on the metro..." At the mention of the metro, RK gets excited. "Mumbai too will soon have its own metro!" he says.
Cool and collected Today, his work is popular and can be seen in galleries and, among other places, the offices of the Deutsche Bank in Mumbai. His paintings don't come cheap either. "Recently he sold one of his large paintings for Rs85,000 (Dh6,300),'' says Vimala.
One reason RK is so self-assured is because of the unflinching faith his parents had in him, says Vimala. "They left no stone unturned to see that RK would be independent." They made it a point to take him along wherever they went, treated him just as they did their other children and encouraged him to do everything.
Today, with his parents no longer around (his mother passed away when he was 29 and his father when he was 36), RK lives independently. A few well-wishers drop by his house in Mumbai regularly and ensure he is taken care of, while Mani accompanies him wherever he goes and sees that all his needs are met. Mani's wife looks after the house.
That said, RK is pretty comfortable on his own as well. He is able to hold a pair of scissors with his toes and can cut paper into different shapes with ease to make collages. "He opens the bottles of paints with his toes, can mix colours, and shifts the materials around by himself," says Vimala.
"He likes Mumbai because everybody in the locality he lives in knows him very well," says Vimala. "He's stayed in the same building right from childhood. The Juhu beach is close by, and he can often be seen in his wheelchair on the sand enjoying the breeze and staring out to sea.
"He has a taxi driver who regularly takes him to wherever he wants to go,'' she says.
Whenever he feels like painting, which is almost every day, RK asks Mani to arrange the easel and, once he gets going, does not stop until he has completed the piece. Depending on the size, he takes around an hour or two to complete a painting. This was evident when, during his stay in Ajman, he held a demo class for children at the office of Genesis, a charity organisation based in Dubai. He painted a landscape within an hour, and proudly presented it to Rekha Warrier, the co-ordinator of Genesis.
His output is prolific, says Vimala. At times he'll do about a dozen paintings in a week, sometimes more. Depending on his mood, he'll work on two or three paintings at one go. "He even likes to experiment with unorthodox mediums," says Vimala. "He once painted on a pair of jeans for a designer friend of mine in Mumbai."
Looking on the bright side of life A man full of positive energy, the only time a shade of despondency came over RK's face was when his sister Vimala spoke about their parents and how they did all they could for RK. He dropped his head and it was clear that tears were rolling down his cheeks. But the moment Vimala realised and came by to pat him on the back, he lifted his face and smiled again.
RK's works brim with optimism - the brilliant landscapes, the colourful still life, all point to a sunny disposition that's very positive and uplifting.
"After meeting him and admiring his paintings, I came away thinking to myself how petty and absurdly stupid ‘normal' anxieties and problems seem in comparison to what Ramakrishnan has to live with for the rest of his life," wrote popular Indian author Shobhaa De in one of her columns. "We crib and complain constantly when the smallest things go wrong, and we protest vociferously if our personal plans don't work out satisfactorily. Here is a man trapped in a wheelchair, his limbs painfully contorted, every small movement a huge effort. And I wonder who is truly blessed - RK with his undaunted spirit... or people like us?"
The children who attended RK's demo class at Genesis were stunned into silence by his carefree attitude, and the pains he took to paint for them. One of the kids even went into a feverish fit of painting when he returned home, repeating RK's words when he first took up the paint brush: "If he can do it, why can't I?" And RK? He was back at his easel, eyes shining as he energetically painted birds taking wing - with no trace of bitterness or irony.
So what does he want to do next? RK's not bothered about exhibitions or sales. He's just interested in living life to the full. "I am off to Singapore for the regional conference of the MFPA in June!" he says proudly. And after that? "Australia!" he says.