“Discovering Ability” Art Awards: Stories of the Winners (Part 1)

120 applications and paintings. 15 finalists. 7 winners. Much deliberation went into deciding the 22 artists who won the art awards ceremony and exhibition that we held at the UNESCO Headquarters in New Delhi, organized by Not Just Art, my Fellowship host organization. At first, we expected to receive around 50 applications but exceeded this overwhelmingly. The entries that were received came from several locations ranging from Gujarat to Odisha and from Uttar Pradesh to Tamil Nadu, from artists with varying disabilities.

Originally, we intended to sort entries by disability and have them judged to select a winner for each category, but ultimately the entries were evaluated and judged solely based on merit. First, the artwork was screened and shortlisted by the faculty at the University of Hyderabad to produce our winning 7 roster, and their remaining top choices would become our 15 finalists. The judging process was very interesting in that many of the professors had ample commentary on the technique and artistic influences of each entry.

Accompanied by my colleague, Sumant, our communications manager, we all sat in a dark lecture hall, dimly lit by a projector that cast an image of each artwork on a PowerPoint slide. No names. No disability. No description. Only the painting and its merit. I observed as Sumant toggled through 120 entries until they had us stop at one particular slide. It was among the first of many that they were unanimously in favor of so much so they remained on the slide for several minutes. It was a painting by one of the winners from Chennai, Y. Ragavendran.

The three faculty members at the University of Hyderabad carefully dissect Y. Ragavendran’s painting for meaning.


At first glance, his painting is unassuming in its presentation however when observed carefully has a powerful message. The painting, while it has a juvenile and youthful style, communicates as a rude awakening and angered warning against those who disrespect nature. One would say that it was a timely entry, as climate change is such a discussed topic in today’s politics. It is easy to tell the artist’s intent with his purposeful juxtaposition of dark purple colors and fiery reds to bring attention to the flames consuming the forest he painted. In the center, you see there is child looking disappointed that his beloved tree would soon to die. Perhaps it is a local public service announcement that warns of the looming threats of climate change that will negatively affect the younger generations.

After selecting our 7 winners and 15 finalists, we notified them and their families and arranged for the sending of their artwork to New Delhi. The time between this section and the facilitation of their travels was crucial because we had to account for varying distances, as they all came from varying states: Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, and Haryana. We also provided accommodation for them when they arrived for the day before the event until the morning after so as to give the artists and their families time to get acquainted with the city and each other. It be then that I would receive them at the hotel and prepare them for the event. During this time, I served as a liaison between the artists and the volunteers and staff from HSBC and UNESCO who aided in hosting the event. I also had the opportunity to stay at the same hotel so I was able to dine with the families and get to know them more. Out of the artists and their families I met, I would like to talk about two of them who impacted me the most.


I spoke with one artist in particular who was quite adamant about selling his artwork at the event. He is an artist with a congenital visual impairment in his left eye, but he has never let that stop him from traveling alone. When giving him the opportunity to allow someone to accompany him to the event, he respectfully declined stating that he planned to submit his artwork for several other events that would require him to travel again so he wanted to prove to his family that he could travel alone.

Mohammed gifting a painted portrait of Not Just Art’s founder, Ms. Meera Shenoy.

Mohammed explains to me that his origins as an artist began when he was a child who, to his mother’s despair, “vulgured the walls” with his paintings until his mother introduced him to an expert who trained him in the basics. While working on his craft, he studied to be come a software engineer to eventually graduate from one of the most prestigious universities for software engineering with a B. Tech. However, it was soon after the beginning of his professional career that his work began to take a toll on his health. Due to the constant strain of looking computer monitors, his vision began to worsen, so to prevent visual impairment from progressing further, he was advised by his physician to end his career in information technology. This was the turning point in his artistic career that led him to become the artist that he is today. During two isolating years from direct sunlight, Mohammed utilized that time to focus on his passion and to advance in his new career. Of course, one would imagine that after ending a well-paying career that there would be fear losing one’s livelihood. Mohammed’s story is not unlike others for whom the selling of artwork no longer becomes a means to pursue a passion, but also a living.

I remember bonding with him at the hotel when we talked about what inspires him when he paints and how much of an impact this art awards had on him. For him, it was an invaluable opportunity to showcase his artwork to a larger scale with the hope to gain exposure and potentially sell his artwork. This was to be understood because often times the price of making the art and sending it for an exhibition can be quite costly and sometimes has to be justified by increasing the price of the artwork. An article from Economic Inquiry states that high prices can discourage and deter bidders from buying, but of course lowering prices for the sake of selling without breaking even on costs may discourage an artist from budging on their prices (Anderson).

As of right now, we are still trying to figure out what works but we have encouraged artists to be strategic with the pricing of their artworks. Of course sometimes to make profits form one work, one might need to raise the price to break – even even if it means lowering the chances of a sale.

AUDIO: A conversation between Mohammed and me over dinner about his story and his feelings about the event.


I also talked to the other artists as well and had an opportunity to befriend the family of Rohit Anand, an artist sponsored by an organization that supports local artists from Bangalore with disabilities.

Well-meaning, gentle hearted, and a lover of devotional music, Rohit is an artist whose artwork is marked by extreme precision and bold colors. In his award winning piece, he depicts himself surrounded by shattered glass. In this artwork, we see Rohit yelling “when it all gets too much,” referring to his senses being overwhelmed. Often times, it can be difficult to understand what individuals on the spectrum such as Rohit have to endure even through words. It is certainly true that this painting is worth a thousand of them.

Overall, as the Discovering Ability Awards was such a large success, it definitely set the bar quite high for what I would end up doing for the artists for the rest of my AIF Clinton Fellowship. Upon returning from a hectic event, I couldn’t help but brainstorm how to best build on the event’s success and learn what Not Just Art could do for next year’s exhibition. Until then, my focus will be on building on the platform that we have created for them and expanding their exposure to potential buyers.

Ismael is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Youth4Jobs in Hyderabad, Telangana. For his Fellowship project, he is organizing awards to bring the talent pool of artists with disabilities into the mainstream and to provide a platform for artists to showcase their work for sustainable livelihoods. Ismael’s interest in global work started when he was ten years old. Inspired by writers like Anthony Bourdain, Ismael became eager to learn about other cultures. He began producing his own radio show (The Embassy), hosting students of various cultural backgrounds to share their stories, music, and culture. Passionate about both medicine and culture, Ismael had his first exposure to development work while volunteering on a medical mission boat that served villages along the Amazon River in Brazil. There, he filmed his first social documentary. This experience inspired him to pursue an international career combining his passion for medicine, public health, and documentary film-making. He participated in a public health semester in Santiago, Chile, studying alternative approaches to medicine as practiced by local indigenous communities. While in Chile, he filmed "Solitude - A Companion Abroad," a documentary about loneliness and self-discovery that won the grand prize at the IES Abroad Film Festival. Ismael was part of research team studying community trust and mistrust in the context of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. As a researcher for the University of Michigan and Michigan State College of Human Medicine, he participated in the Future Public Health Leaders Program sponsored by the Centers of Disease Control. Ismael hopes to pursue a Master’s in Public Health in Epidemiology or Health Behavior to inform his career in medicine during which he will continue filming documentaries for social change.

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