Published: 14th April 2021
From speaking at the UN to helping kids get educated, Down Syndrome has never got in Karishma's way
From helping special children get an education to sponsoring heart surgeries, Karishma uses her art to make a difference, despite her battle with Down Syndrome
On a bright Sunday morning, Karishma Kannan tells us what she likes to paint the most over a phone call from Bengaluru. "Nature," asserts the 29-year-old. "I love using every colour while painting," Karishma adds. Indeed, vibrant colours are what sets Karishma's canvas apart. But it is definitely her vibrant smile and resilient spirit that has led art to traverse the globe, with patrons in the United States, Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia. In 2019, Karishma was also invited to the United Nations in Geneva, where she delivered a speech during Down Syndrome Awareness Month. Diagnosed when she was four months old, Karishma has decided to dedicate her life to help others, especially those not fortunate enough to receive treatment, and has been donating every penny she has earned from the sale of her artworks to the cause.
After spending her initial years in Chennai, Karishma and her family moved to Vietnam. It was there that Karishma was first exposed to art through a British woman named Cyndi Beaumont. Karishma's mother, Kalpana, recalls the meeting. "Cyndi was an art teacher and she informed us that she didn't have any experience working with special children. However, she wanted to teach Karishma and that was a turning point in her life. She connected with Cyndi and began experimenting with acrylics on canvas," says Kalpana. Most of Karishma's training in art involved her being outdoors, where she would touch and feel things around her — from water to flowers and leaves — and that's what probably drew her to nature. This was in 2009.
Karishma walking the ramp | Pic: Kalpana Kannan
By the end of that year, Karishma had worked on 40 paintings. "Whoever saw her art told us that we should conduct an exhibition. With the support of the community in Vietnam, we finally decided to conduct Karishma's first exhibition," says Kalpana. It was during one of these exhibitions that Karishma came across a boy. "He looked frail and unwell and when Karishma asked his mother, she informed us that he has a heart condition," recalls Kalpana. This was the impetus that Karishma needed. She decided to donate her entire earnings from the art sales towards the boy's heart surgery. Four more similar surgeries later, Karishma knew this is what she wanted to do. She now contributes her earnings towards the education of special children in Chennai, Bengaluru and Vietnam. "We host exhibitions every year. In 2020, we had to do it virtually due to the pandemic. Karishma is also connected with various NGOs, like Atypical Advantage, where her artwork is displayed and sold," says Kalpana.
Coming into her own
It was during her initial years that Karishma's family met Dr Rekha Ramachandran in Chennai. Ramachandran is the president of the Down Syndrome Federation of India's Tamil Nadu chapter. "She helped us connect to several therapists, counsellors and parents of other children with Down Syndrome," says Kalpana. "We also met Dr MC Mathew, who ran a centre called Ashirwad. He was more than a doctor and therapist and helped Karishma a lot during her early years," adds Kalpana. However, it was three years later when Karishma's life changed for the better — her younger sister Kajol was born. "Kajol's presence in Karishma's life made a significant difference. They both grew up and did everything together. Karishma is very attached to her sister," says Kalpana.
One of Karishma's artworks | Pic: Kalpana Kannan
Before moving to Vietnam, Karishma also went to RASA — Ramana Sunritya Aalaya in Chennai, a special school that practices Creative Movement Education. Here, she was exposed to dance, theatre and performing arts as a mode of therapy. "Karishma learnt Bharatanatyam along with Kajol. Every year, she would participate in stage shows and that boosted her tremendously," says Kalpana.
It is not just donating to the cause of special children that Karishma is invested in. Currently residing in Bengaluru, Karishma and her family also founded Studio 21Up in the city. "Studio 21Up is a space where we conduct camps and outreach programmes for young adults with Down Syndrome to help them become self-sufficient and independent," says Karishma's father Kannan. "The camps are day-long, where the participants shop, cook, swim, perform yoga and dance," adds Kalpana. Karishma also paints at the venue.
The yoga class that Karishma attends |Pic: Kalpana Kannan
Other than art, dance, theatre and her philanthropic activities, Karishma is also a model for the differently-abled. "She has walked the ramp for AASMAAN Foundation, which is the largest fashion show in India for differently-abled people," says Kalpana. Clearly, the sky is the limit for Karishma who lives by the motto — I can, You can, We can.