Some of the best artists in the world have lived with disabilities, but never let it stand in their way to use art to communicate with the world. Ludwig Van Beethoven was deaf for almost 25 years of his life, yet he composed some of his best pieces during that period. Mexican painter Frieda Kahlo struggled with spina bifi da, a condition that affected both leg and spinal development, but she went on to become an international cultural icon. 26-year-old Konthoujam Maikel Meitei, who had had both his legs amputated, has also shown the same courage and tenacity to move on with life and nurture his passion—painting.
Twist of Fate
On 16th December 2007, a powerful Improvised Explosive Device (IED) exploded in Pourabi near Imphal killing over seven people and injuring 30 others. Maikel was one of the victims. Following the blast, he had to have both his legs amputated. Recalling that fateful day, Maikel says, ‘I was returning home in a jam packed bus after attending a painting competition when the blast happened. I found myself on a hospital bed after regaining consciousness and was told that the injuries to my legs are so grave that amputation was the last option to save my life’. ‘I spent sleepless nights in the hospital crying. At this stage, I thought getting back on my feet again was impossible’, recalled Maikel. When he thought all was lost, a photograph in a magazine gave him a new ray of hope. The photograph was of South African sprinter, Oscar Pistorious. The sprinter became the greatest inspiration in Maikel’s life and helped him be the person he is today. It was during this time that Maikel developed a clear vision of what he wanted from life—to be able to keep painting. And, although he lost both his legs that ill-fated day, it also brought a tremendous change in him, making him much more determined to excel in his field. Today, he is one of the most recognizable young faces in the art circuit in Manipur with over 20 national and international awards and honours under his belt.
A New Life
March, a season of great festivity in Manipur as its people celebrate Yaoshang, a version of Holi, brought welcome news to Maikel’s life too. After spending a few difficult months in hospital, Maikel for the first time was able to stand using prosthetic limbs. ‘That moment is still vivid in my memory, it was as if I was born all over again’, shares Maikel. From that moment on, things started to fall into place. He earned his BFA (Bachelor’s in Fine Arts) degree in the first class while still in hospital. Also, his first painting after his amputation simply titled ‘Present Situation One’ (mixed media on canvas) caught the attention of the world. The painting is a depiction of the suffering of people living in the conflict zone, drawn from his real life experience. It was exhibited in Manipur and outside the State as well. It was also selected for exhibition at the Guwahati Kala Khetra, and at the same time received ‘honourable mention’ from the Manipur Art Society.
Maikel grew up in a suburb of Imphal, Sagolmang Wakhong, which is about 17 km from the capital. Enamoured by the natural beauty of his birthplace, he would spend hours immersed in gazing at a starlit night sky or listen to the gurgling of a stream. His passion for painting thus evolved from his great love of nature. Thus, it is no wonder that his paintings of nature are just as well known as his more sombre works. By the year 2000, he had started participating in various national and international competitions under the guidance of Longjam Sashi, a local painter of repute. At the age of 19, he received the national scholarship for the year 2008-09, under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, New Delhi. Since then, there has been no looking back. In 2013, Maikel had his first solo exhibition at Nupeelal Memorial Complex, Imphal, and was widely appreciated by art critics for its fluidity and strength. Maikel’s work has also been put on display in important institutions like the Manipur State Kala Akademi, Raj Bhawan. Moreover, his collection has found buyers in other places like Chennai, West Bengal, Hyderabad, Ranchi, Rajasthan and also abroad.
His latest work titled ‘A memorable dark’ (mixed media on canvas 30×32) is another painting about strife torn Manipur that has been selected by State Kala Akademi for exhibition. Maikel is currently training 15 individuals as a part of the three-month program under Guru Shishya Parampara sponsored by the Ministry of Textile, Government of India. Let’s hope he keeps inspiring others to take to art and express their angst through the brush, and not the bullet.
By Jimmy Leivon
This article first came out in Eclectic Northeast March issue of 2015