“If you cannot conquer a woman, burn her. That’s the attitude of people who have perpetrated acid attacks on women in the country,” says Sandeep Sinha, an Information Technology professional from India.
The artist has recently made it to the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest oil painting entitled: ‘HiMakhan’. It means strong-minded as the Himalayas and soft-hearted as butter. This painting draws inspiration from acid-attack survivors who stand tall despite all odds.
With the painting, Sandeep broke the earlier record which was held by an artist in the US for almost 4 years for a painting measuring 22.46 square metres. Sandeep’s painting measures 48.78 square metres and features the Himalayan ranges to portray the strength of acid attack survivors.
“As per the rules, the painting should be a single scene. After brainstorming with my family and friends, I felt that the grandeur of these ranges, which are an epitome of strength would be my best option to put forth the point. Just like these Himalayan ranges brave the fury of nature and still play a host to a thriving culture, depicted through the monasteries as well as flora and fauna, these survivors also go on undeterred in their lives,” he says.
Sandeep’s inspiration was a maid who worked for the family when he was 5-years old. The story he says, is still fresh in his memory. “My father worked in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, where our maid was an acid attack survivor. After a domestic dispute, her husband smeared acid on her. A few drops had even landed on her two babies. The attack left the three of them scarred for life. But this did not deter her from going on with her life and staying strong for her children,” says Sandeep.
Dedicated artworks provide positive reinforcement for the survivors
One of the posts on Stop Acid Attacks (a country wide campaign) facebook page rightly reads: Courage is not having the strength to go on, it’s going on when you don’t have the strength. Many attack survivors have already made this statement true.
In a patriarchal society like India, regardless of her innocence, the attacked woman has to bear the brunt of her society. “Rather than the attacker, the attack survivor is victimised and disowned by society. This is the biggest challenge which these attack victims need to conquer,” says Ashish Shukla, co-founder of Sheroes Hangout café, which is run by survivors. He is also one of the key campaigners in India working to stop acid attacks.
Adding to this, Rupa, a survivor whose step mother smeared acid on her face when she was 15 years old said, “Society questions you, making it difficult to go out and face the world. People keep making mean comments like it is better to die rather than survive with a burnt face. But our identities are more than our facial beauty, which they need to understand,” she says. Working in the Sheroes café, Rupa has managed to support herself and face the world. Just like her, the ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ has many more stories of women facing the world head on after these attacks turned their lives upside down. These women, along with Laxmi who speaks for the rights of acid attack victims or Reshma Qureshi a model and the face of Make Love Not Scars, stand testimony to what Sandeep has expressed through his art: acid cannot burn their souls.
Speaking about the need for such artworks, Rupa says, “With more people talking about it, the stigma attached, and the victimisation of survivors reduces. In my initial days after the attack, I used to stay at home with my face covered with a dupatta. Subsequently watching others speak up, I realised, it was not my fault and I should face the world head on,” she says. The Himalayas, Sandeep says, is the symbol of such indomitable spirit shown by Rupa and many other attack survivors.
Acid Attacks in India
Reports say, it is not just jilted lovers or stalkers, this monstrosity is sometimes even perpetrated by one’s own parents as an extreme reaction to their child being born female.
According to the last released report by the National Crime Record Bureau, in the year 2016, the number of acid attacks in the country were 283. The number seems to have gone up from 203 in 2014 and 222 in 2015. A few years ago, the government regulated the sale of acid. As set out in regulations, the purchaser has to show his/her identity card and provide information on the purpose of the purchase. The shops, which sell acid need to have a license under the Poison (Amendment) Act 1999 and need to maintain a stock register. However, people who work to create awareness about acid attacks say, there are no audits for the same.