Smriti Nagpal, 25, the youngest indian woman on BBC’s 100 Women in 2015 list, is doing her bit for the hearing impaired
When 25-year-old Smriti Nagpal was first approached by BBC for the ‘30 under 30’ category in their 100 Women 2015 list, she didn’t quite grasp the scale of the recognition heading her way. “I was in Sweden at the time and thought it was just a list they would publish on their website, that was all. When I was back home, my dad came to me with the newspaper one morning. It was carrying my picture alongside pictures of stalwarts like Asha Bhosle and that was when it really sunk in — this was huge. Everyone bombarded me with congratulatory wishes, but the best moment was when my father said to me that he was proud of me. I had been waiting for that one line since forever,” says the young social entrepreneur.
Smriti has been working with and for the hearing impaired alongside her organisation, Atulyakala, since she was 22 and being featured on the prestigious list seems only to have motivated her to work harder towards her goal of making the world a better place for those who cannot hear its sounds. The youngest among seven Indian women to be featured, Nagpal has been engaged with sign language since she was a child, born into a family where both her elder siblings were hearing impaired.
“Since I was a child, I had been doing sign language because it was a need of the family. I have two amazing siblings who have always pampered me like a child, and sign language was my only way of communicating with them. So, sign language was an organic part of my life — it wasn’t something conscious that I took up with a purpose,” she shares.
At 16, she took up her first interpreting assignment for the NAD (National Association of the Deaf) on World Disability Day. “I was in class 10 and had no experience, but NAD — an organisation I was familiar with through my brother and sister — insisted I get on a platform and interpret for almost 10,000 people. I was very nervous, but after I came off the stage, some people came to me and thanked me for helping them understand what was being said. That was when I realised that interpreting is a practical necessity for a lot of people,” Smriti recalls.
An audition for Doordarshan’s Hearing Impaired Morning Bulletin followed when she was in college, and there has been no looking back since. “I am still doing the bulletin, it has been five years now. I get up at five every morning to make it in time for it!” The concept of Atulyakala came up after an encounter with an artist who was hearing impaired and, despite a Master’s degree in Fine Arts, had been compelled to make regular handmade pen stands and other handmade products for an NGO. The young entrepreneur explains, “I wondered why he was doing this.
He told me that he had no other opportunities and that there are many more like him. I asked him to meet me after a week and gave him an assignment after consulting a friend of mine from an arts background. The way he did it was absolutely beautiful. I started meeting more and more artists like him and realised that ninety percent of them faced similar lack of opportunities. That’s when the idea of Atulyakala came up and I was very sure that I didn’t want it to be like any other NGO, making usual products everyone has seen before.”
Atulyakala, as it stands today, is a two-and-half-year-old social enterprise that works with hearing impaired artists and functions at three levels: the artists design artworks and products, at times in collaboration with regular artists, and these designs are then converted into products that are commercially manufactured. The second wing of the organisation works as a design studio, taking up design projects from clients for branding and similar purposes. The third wing deals entirely with spreading awareness about sign language through events, workshops, videos and more. “We help deaf artists to grow and learn by holding workshops for them too, so that they can be exposed to newer ideas and concepts,” Smriti adds.
Ask her what kind of a personal journey she has seen herself undertake alongside the work she has been doing, and she responds, “Honestly, I was a total brat in college. From there, raising Atulyakala has been like raising a child. And I have learnt so much along the way about how to work with different kinds of people, how to deal with different kinds of situations and so on. I was 22 when I began, and was like any other girl. Then, there came a moment when I began to realise that I have a team and it is my responsibility to take care of them — their livelihood depends on me. I have grown up so much as a person since then.”