Next time you buy a greeting card to commemorate a special moment or a festival, make sure you buy one marketed by the Indian chapter of the International Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (IMFPA).
The IMFPA, a for-profit association owned and run by disabled artists, uses paintings and designs of these artists to sell a product range of greetings cards to coffee mugs. Interestingly, IMFPA’s motto is ‘self-help, not charity’— clearly emphasizing the determination of the disabled to live life on their own terms.
Arnulf Erich Stegmann founded the IMFPA in Liechtenstein in 1956. A German, Stegmann was polio-stricken at the age of two, losing the use of both arms. He learnt to paint with his mouth and studied with artists Erwin von Kormöndy and Hans Gerstacker. He created a collective of disabled artists from all over Europe, the goal being to ensure job security and a steady income throughout their lives.
Today, IMFPA has grown to nearly 700 members from 74 countries. Stegmann has consistently stressed that IMFPA is anything but a charity—a mistake people tend to make because the members are disabled. The credo highlights that MFPA is not a charity and does not look for charitable assistance.
The Indian chapter has been in operation since 1980 in Mumbai and features 18 disabled artists. Any artist, who has lost the use of their limbs and does mouth or foot painting, is eligible to join the Association. An artist is first accepted as a student member and given grants for art education and materials. They are consistently monitored by an assessing panel and elevated to an Associate Member and, then, a Full member based on their quality of work. The standards are quite exacting, the skill should match that of non-disabled professional artists.
Nadeem Sheikh, 17, is the youngest member of IMFPA. Born without his arms, Nadeem started painting at the age of nine. It was easy to get into since he had become used to using his feet for all his chores. He joined the Association when he was twelve. For Nadeem, in spite of support from his parents, being on his own and earning his own livelihood gives him a lasting satisfaction.
The artists portray landscapes, portraits, sketches and designs to be converted digitally and featured on greeting cards, calendars, coffee mugs, T-shirts, bags, book-marks, desk diaries, gift tags, paintings, glass trays and coaster sets. The products are sold through outlets across the country and through the Association website.
The Association is run on a co-operative basis, with artists having equal say in the running of affairs. The managing board is headed by a disabled artist. The artists are the sole beneficiaries of the financials. The membership ensures that a disabled artist continues to earn a monthly income even when their health deteriorates and are unable to work. The marketing, distribution and other related areas are taken care of by normal individuals, leaving the artists to concentrate on their creative process.
The IMFPA also organizes exhibitions, sales of original works and negotiation of copyright deals on behalf of the artists.In fact, the first member of IMFPA in India, Mumbai’s Narayan Ramakrishnan, sold a painting recently for as much as Rs.85,000. Corporates like HSBC and other NGOs have reserved space at their branches across India to display the IMFPA products ensuring better exposure.
Some of the designs have won national and international recognition, including one from the former President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. One of the artistes, Manjibhai Ramani, recently won the ‘Super-Idol’ award from IBN7, presented by Bollywood star, Salman Khan. Works produced by the members of the MFPA are featured in the UN Headquarters in Geneva and the European Council in Strasbourg.
Manjibhai Ramani featured on IBN7 TV