Cynthia Dettman:  Author

folk art by leprosy survivors

Just came back from a lovely evening of music, art,  dance and discussion. So much happened- this is going to be a long post. Sit back and enjoy!

The event took place at the Luz House, a 250 year old building which was first 18th century barracks for Portuguese soldiers. Only in India!   Later a wealthy Indian purchased the property after he became enormously wealthy from his business dealings as primary translator for the British.   In l868 the house became famous because one of his descendants, the father of South Indian Cricket, was born.   In those days cricket in the city was dominated by the whites-only Madras Cricket Club (MCC), and Buchi Babu’s interest in the game grew by watching them play at Chepauk . He used to be taken there as a child by his two English nannies, and one can say that the influence of cricket upon Buchi Babu was a direct result.

By the age of 20, fuelled by outrage over not being allowed the use of the MCC pavilion, he founded the Madras United Cricket Club (now Madras United Club), which focused on taking the sport to Indians in the city.Buchi Babu’s three sons became great cricketers and carried on the family tradition. With independence and subsequent legislation enacted against vast landholdings, the family was forced to sell its surplus lands.  But descendants have kept this house and it’s now available for events. I noticed it was indeed a grand old building with wide verandahs, huge rooms, and a lovely outdoor garden.

My favorite discovery was upstairs, where I found an amazing group of people with disabilities making and selling folk art.  They are older people who are leprosy survivors with disfigured hands and feet. They come from very poor and illiterate backgrounds, according to the non-profit literature and website.   They are provided housing and free art classes and material. I’m blown away by the colors, the feeling, the artistry of their works. I”m buying several of their works, each for around $30.  They would probably sell for $300 in a gallery in New York. I was told that a portion of the proceeds go to the non-profit, and once a month the remainder is distributed equally among all the artists. 

Enjoy this very touching video on their site.

Some of the artists who were there enjoyed posing for my pictures.

My photos in bad light don’t do justice to the color and beauty of these paintings on homemade paper with poster paints.  The  fellow below is the artist who painted the red cow scene.  I was told he is now 95 and bedridden.  He prefers to paint cows, and cows that are nursing.

I bought this gentleman’s beautiful tree.


I had to have this one!
Very interesting use of dots. Some of the paintings look like they are from Australian aboriginal artists. The staff member with them told me they have not been exposed to art from other countries. However, many Indian use dots to design their “kolams” (traditional chalk drawings at the front door).




Here you can see the artist’s hands deformed by leprosy. He was a very cheerful man and told me that he too grew up in Madurai, as I did.


I was a happy women to encounter these folks and their art!  Yes, I did do some shopping.

I learned that leprosy was eradicated but has recently reappeared in India.  The treatment for this disease involves very powerful drugs that can damage the kidneys.  I’m not sure whether the folks in the video have all completed treatment or are in treatment still.  Many clearly have significant disabilities.

Just looked at the gallery online:  check out artist #1, #7, #10, #14, #19, # 22, #25 – they’re all wonderful!

It looks like they do ship paintings to the US- just in case you want to make a contribution to this excellent non-profit organization and have some colorful folk art on your way!


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Wow! What beautiful art! I especially love the tree, and the nursing cows.
I had no idea about leprosy survivors. All I had heard of were quarantined leprosy colonies in different places and times. Thank you for educating us, Cynthia!

I was really amazed by these folks- their resilience and their artistry. What a great concept to use art to empower very marginalized people. I do think people with leprosy have been isolated for a long time- they beg in some parts of India. I’m not exactly sure how these folks are housed and get treatment- but the artists I met at the festival had eyes full of hope and joy. Cynthia

Cynthia… this is so moving! I love these paintings. I want to send a copy of this video to my son, David. I’m sure he would want to purchase a painting for Karunalayam. I’ll see if I can send it. If not, I’ll ask for help!

Hi again, Cynthia…. I would love to buy the painting of the cow and the nursing calf. Can you buy this for me and maybe bring it to Kodai??

I sure agree about the charm of these pieces of folk art. Wish I were in a situation where I could house some of these pieces. A rare find, Cynthia. Kudos to you and to the sensitive, productive, and brilliant artists!

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