Shahlem: The ‘unsighted’ sculptor

Shahlem: The ‘unsighted’ sculptor
By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 8/4/2019 7:13:20 AM IST

 Samuel Beech 

It is generally believed that when you lose one of your five senses, another sense gets heightened to help you cope or make up for the loss. This explains why many visually impaired people can navigate their way in a house without the help of a walking stick or do many other things by mental spatial calculations in their head. One such young man from Yuching village under Mon district, Nagaland has however taken it to another level. He is a self-taught sculptor, who has also made his own rain-water harvesting system in his house and does most of the repair works at home.

25- year-old Shahlem lost vision in both eyes at the age of 8 when he was studying in class 1 in the only government village in Yuching village. Though the loss of sight meant that he had to give up his studies, it did not stop him spending his time productively. He spends most of the day making sculptures, household items like stools and doing repair works at home. 

Shahlem was born in Yuching village under Mon district on May 12, 1994. His father Khenwang and mother Lemjaon are both farmers and he has three brothers and four sisters. Yuching is a remote village around 9 kilometres from Mon district. As learnt from Shahlem’s sister, the village has around 140 families but no public dispensary, health centres or hospitals. In case of sickness or an emergency, villagers have to travel by vehicle to the nearest Hospital in Mon. 

There are currently only two schools in Yuching village; a private school for nursery to class four and a government school for nursery to class eight.

Shahlem’s visual impairment has only pushed him to evolve into a self-taught sculptor and an innovator of sorts. And though he has completely lost sight in both his eyes, his eyelids are not shut as in some cases and his eyes also appear normal. Apart from his visual impairment, he is a normal, active and healthy young man. 

Shahlem does most of the plumbing and repair works at home but his first love is making sculptures out of wooden logs. He has quite a big collection and there is nothing stopping him for now, definitely not his visual impairment.  He starts sculpting from 9 am till 2 pm when he takes a lunch break. He spends an average of 5 days a week making sculptures. It takes him 5 days to make small sculptures and around a month for bigger ones.

When this writer asked his sister Amongla, how many sculptures he had made so far, she said she has lost count. It is also interesting to note that the sculptures he makes depict rural life in Nagaland while some are of animals. The sculptures he has made will make any sculptor with a normal 20/20 vision proud. His family members in fact reveal that people who visit them to see his handiworks are often amazed. Some even find it hard to believe that a visually impaired person can pull off something so creative and visually appealing. 

When asked how does he get the shape and size of his sculptures correct, his family members said that he uses his hands to feel his sculptures to know if they were made as per the image he has in his mind. 

Shahlem does not make sculptures for business but to keep himself engaged. He derives immense satisfaction from making them. People who visit his house however buy some of the sculptures and that adds to the family income. 

 The sense of touch or feeling is also what French educator and inventor Louis Braille used to develop a tactile code consisting of dots on a surface that represented letters. It came to be known as the Braille system. It has virtually remained unchanged to this day and is used the world over. 

While the use of fingers and hands is to primarily feel and identify objects, there are visually impaired people who have learnt the science of echolocation to walk in crowded streets, go trekking, ride a cycle and even drive on the road. Echolocation is the use of sound primarily produced by the clicking of the tongue to determine the distance of objects, and in some cases, even shape and size. This method is also used by bats when they fly.
The world’s most renowned echolocation expert is Daniel Kish aka the human Batman. Daniel had both his eyes removed when he was 13 months due to eye cancer. He is the first totally blind person to be a legally Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS) and to hold a National Blindness Professional Certification (NOMC). His organization ‘World Access for the Blind’ has taught echolocation to at least 500 visually impaired children around the world.
Coming back to Shahlem, till about class 1, he was like any other boy growing up in the village; healthy, active, happy and playing with his friends. When he was in class 1, he often fell ill and complained of headache. Due to lack of medical facilities in the village, he could not receive proper diagnosis and treatment for his ailment . This eventually resulted in total loss of sight. After he lost sight in 2002, his parents took him to various hospitals and ophthalmologists in Kohima and Dimapur but it was a case of too little too late as he had already lost his eyesight then. 
A self-taught sculptor, Shahlem, is also an innovator in his own right. Water can be scarce in the mountainous regions and he has constructed a simple yet effective way to harvest rainwater in his house. He does all the plumbing and repair works too. Shahlem also likes to experiment, and as such, he has also made a mechanical fan which can operate without electricity. Considering that he does these on his own and only with the sense of a touch, it is a remarkable feat. 
The few who have visited Shahlem and interacted with him are left in awe and appreciation of his tenacity and ingenuity. On one occasion, his works were displayed during a students’ union programme held at the village and he garnered massive attention with many clicking pictures of him. He has however not received due recognition. This writer also got to learn about Shahlem from Birese Sangtam, a scout and field researcher of National Innovation Foundation. Birese tours Nagaland and the Northeast to identify innovators to help them get assistance from National Innovation Foundation in showcasing their innovations, popularizing and helping them translate their innovations into monetary help. 
It is indeed a matter of pride for Nagaland to have such a talent who has been an inspiration to everyone who has crossed his path. Shahlem is a genius hidden in a remote part of the state who needs to be encouraged further. We can all take a leaf from Shahlem’s book when it comes to passion and hard work under trying and testing circumstances. 

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