In the ‘70s, it was fashionable for hippies to embark on a tour to India to promote love and peace and to seek enlightenment. They came, stayed for a while, and then disappeared back to Europe and to the Americas from whence they had come. Not so Austrian artist Werner Dornik, who experienced a life-changing moment when he came across some leprosy-afflicted people in Benaras. He was appalled at their condition and noted that everyone ostracised them. The people were too poor to afford treatment. This vision gave him sleepless nights back then and when he returned to his country, the lepers would haunt him in his dreams. “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 said recently in an interview to The Speaking Tree.
He now curates exhibitions for artists of Bindu Art School – the art school he founded for the lepers back in 2000 in a bid to help them and to make them have a sense of self-worth.
Dornik proved that he was very different from the rest of the hippie crowd that he had hung around with back in the ‘70s. He found that they were there to spend their days high on drugs and were not really interested in spreading love to anyone, leave alone to the poor and the disadvantaged.
His dream was to give these leprosy patients money for their treatment and to help them live in a dignified manner. He began to paint and would sell his paintings to organise their treatment.
By the year 2000, he had already made several strides towards his goal.
“I was able to sponsor treatment for people in many colonies including Khandwa andIndore.” Then came the good news. Treatment for lepers was made free by the WHO and the Indian authorities.
But he still had some 5000 euros left in the funds he had raised for the lepers by selling his paintings.
It was then he met Padma Venkataraman, daughter of former President R
Venkataraman, who also diligently worked for the wellbeing of the leper community.
With her collaboration, they set up
an art school in 2005, called simply, Bindu Art School in Bharatpuram, in Chennai. The USP of the art school was simple – to change the lives of leprosy patients by selling their artworks and by setting them up with some money. He recalls that some of the lepers had never even held a pencil, and he would tell them to meditate and then draw whatever came to their minds. The exercise slowly helped them to open up and their drawings became both more colourful and meaningful. On his part, Dornik would encourage them to paint whateve they wanted.
Lepers may be deformed on the outside, but in their inner world, they are filled with beauty. And this was what was reflected in their simple artworks, which became complex and gifted over time.
Their artworks are colourful and full of hope and many of the lepers-turned-artists are now accomplished painters in their own right.