“Disability, which will touch all of our lives sooner or later, should be a concern to us all,” says the apt preface to the book ‘The Invisible Majority: India’s Abled Disabled’ by CK Meena and VR Feroze. Magician Gopinath Muthukad, Executive Director, Different Art Centre (DAC), Thiruvananthapuram, could not agree more.

Muthukad gave up his full-time global career as a magician after a chance encounter with the mother of a child with disabilities to set up the DAC in late 2019. What it takes to manage a child who cannot walk, or otherwise has a disability, goes much beyond received wisdom, he says.

Empowering the disabled

“The idea was to teach magic to these children, make them performers and earn something for themselves,” Muthukad told businessline. “Vishnu Ravi, a student with cerebral palsy, was among the first admissions into our Centre. The batch was trained for six months and Ravi emerged as a star performer. Then-Vice President Hamid Ansari attended his arangetram. His skills even fetched him an invitation from Sophia University in Japan to an international symposium.”

Gopinath Muthukad flanked by Vishnu Ravi (left) and Ruksana Anwar (right) with certificates of participation at an event as part of the G20 summit.

Gopinath Muthukad flanked by Vishnu Ravi (left) and Ruksana Anwar (right) with certificates of participation at an event as part of the G20 summit.

Ravi is self-sufficient by most parameters, and is an employee of Magic Planet, a successful museum under the DAC that seeks to rehabilitate street magicians. He has earned wages of Rs 10 lakh till today, says Muthukad. “This is a model that we want to try with his batchmates who suffer from low self-esteem, developmental delays and social anxiety. Restoring them to some level of self-sufficiency is a painfully slow and difficult process. Gains made are a testament to their power of adaptation, support, and will to thrive.”

Free birds at DAC

The DAC admits children from the age of 14, a phase marked by hormonal changes that parents find difficult to manage. Back at home, they are otherwise put into isolation or chained, even shutting them out to the light of the day. “But here, they’re free to be themselves under the watch of caregivers, therapists and trainers. In fact, the kids wish to be here even on holidays,” Muthukad said.

They are encouraged to give expression to their artistic skills, some of which would stun parents and handlers alike. There are in-house auditoriums where they can break into a song impromptu, single or in group, with full complement of a band peopled by batchmates. This correspondent watched an enthusiastic live band in one auditorium and a dance show in another.

Expansion plans

“Appreciation from visitors/audience acts as a steroid on them. So, they wait to dish out their best before them,” says Revathi Rugmini, CEO at DAC, which now plans to embrace assistive technology in a big way, including artificial intelligence. Muthukad said his team is talking to a few institutions in Singapore, Oman and the US for collaboration.

DAC is built on a five-acre plot at the Kinfra Film and Video Park, and houses the Magic Planet as well. DAC is now setting up a Universal Empowerment Centre in the next block with a view to empowering the kids and employing them. Separately, Muthukad is working on a dream DAC 2.0 project, the International Institute for People with Disabilities (IIPD)coming up to global standards over 20 acres in Kanhangad in Kasaragod district, with rehabilitative care hospital and a paralympics sports stadium to boot, among others.