The charisma of Karishma

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Artist Karishma Kannan poses next to a work in progress at her residence on November 23, 2011

It has been said that a picture is a poem without words. It has also been said that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Karishma Kannan's pictures live up to both these definitions, telling a poetic story in vivid, inspiring colors.

In fact the story transcends the art.

Karishma, whose name means miracle, was diagnosed with Down syndrome a few months after she was born, 20 years ago. Her mother had not even heard of such an affliction. The parents took some time off from their work to digest the diagnosis and prepare themselves for taking care of their special child. The mother gave up her work and set about learning all she could about the condition to give Karishma all the input she needed.

Thenceforth, every daily activity in the household was channeled toward enhancing Karishma's growth potential. It was not an easy process, but the parents persevered, aided in no small way by their daughter's charm, thrilled with every development milestone she crossed, from learning to walk to learning to talk.

Soon, they realized that it was not just Karishma who was growing, but they themselves, learning lessons in life "we'd have otherwise taken a lifetime to learn."

When the family arrived in Vietnam from India a little more than three years ago ("8-8-8", Karishma chipped in wanting to say that they arrived on eighth of August in 2008) the parents' anxieties about keeping Karishma constructively engaged were not assuaged as she left the special school she joined after only three months, with language and other communication barriers proving too tough to overcome.

It was 18 months into their Vietnam sojourn that it was suggested to the family that they meet up with Cyndy Beaumont, who taught art at a local school. Beaumont had no previous experience teaching children with special needs, but at the very first meeting with Karishma, there was a chemistry that clicked between the two, and a miracle began to unfold.

Karishma was so taken up with her new world, a world where she could express what she saw and felt, that her attention span, which was very short typically, not lasting more than a few minutes, began to grow steadily. Now, Karishma gets so involved in her painting that she will not move from the easel for several hours.

Explaining how she helped her special student discover the artist within herself, Cyndy Beaumont said, "Following some studies of famous artists and artworks, I encourage Karishma to explore her ideas first by sketching, which then leads to expanding her ideas into a final painting."

She said there was no special approach that she adopted with Karishma. "Like all my students, I encourage Karishma to explore her ideas and enjoy the process of discovery."

Karishma's enjoyment is evident. Every trip she makes within and outside Vietnam, every tree and flower, every landscape she sees is grist for her artistic mill.

One of Karishma's paintings to be exhibited at the Renaissance Riverside Saigon Hotel in HCMC's District 1 on November 25, 2011

"Nature and happy family holidays" are her favorite painting topics, Karishma says. She likes to exchange ideas with her teacher, go on nature walks to zoos and parks, see the work of famous artists, and explore many types of brush and sponge techniques.

Each place she visits in Vietnam or neighboring countries becomes a favorite place - Ha Long Bay, Nha Trang, Hanoi, Bali and so on. And her memories about these places find expression in her paintings.

Karishma is not content with enjoying her new discovery and talent. She is keen to spread that joy. Her father, Hariharan Kannan, a senior executive with Pepsico Vietnam, got a surprise gift for his birthday recently a painting set, that he was asked to use immediately.

But the greatest sharing, for Karishma and her parents, is an exhibition that opens on Friday, November 25 at the Renaissance Riverside Saigon Hotel in District 1.

Sharing the miracle

Titled "Sharing the Miracle Karishma I can, you can, we can," the exhibition of 43 of her works will raise funds for the Gia Dinh Special School that trains children with autism and Down syndrome and the Kon Tum Sponsoring Association that provides a home to care for elder ethnic minority citizens, orphans, Agent Orange affected children and others.

"It is our way of saying thanks to Vietnam, an expression of profound gratitude for the priceless gift that has been given to us," said Kalpana Kannan, Karishma's mother.

Karishma's parents said they want to share more than the joy of Karishma's discovery with Vietnam. The message is more important, they said. The message is that intellectually-challenged people are not disabled, but differently abled. The focus in helping people with such conditions should be on their abilities not on their disabilities, said Hariharan Kannan.

What children like Karishma need is not sympathy, but empathy, and the space for exploring their abilities to the fullest, said Kalpana Kannan.

Karishma's story inspired the Indian Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, Abay Thakur, to give the project the support of his office. He said the exhibition highlights the spirit of relations between India and Vietnam and that Karishma was an ambassador for her country.

Karishma, asked by her mother to give a high-five for her achievements, just smiled and shrank back shyly.

She lets her art, her colors do the talking.

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