When Muthukad Gopinath first met the 18-year-old, he did not talk. He only made a sound. One-and-a-half years later, he could sing a hundred songs without missing a beat. All his mother wanted was to hear him call her Amma. Today he calls her Amma, and he calls Muthukad 'Magic Uncle'. He is one of the 100 persons with disability at the Different Art Centre (DAC) that renowned magician Muthukad Gopinath opened in Thiruvananthapuram in October 2019.
In a recent study done by the Institute for Communicative and Cognitive Neuro Sciences (ICCONS) and the Child Development Centre (CDC), the DAC was assessed to produce marked improvement in persons with disability.
“Using a before and after methodology, the evaluations found very satisfactory progress — a reduction of the undesirable behaviours exhibited by all the participants and notable improvement in their daily living skills. Gross and fine motor skills also improved following the yearlong training programme,” found the ICCONS.
The CDC, “which had conducted periodic health assessments for the participants, also found improvement in their health and mental status.”
“I learnt magic when I was seven and my life revolved around magic from the time I was 10 years old. But four years ago, I attended a programme in Kasargod, for children with disability. It really shook me when I watched a teenage boy with autism cry out to his mother about being hungry and listened to how she spoke to him. I understood the pain and the problems that parents of children with disability go through. I realised that life is not just about magic. I wanted to do something for the children and their parents,” Muthukad says.
In his travels abroad as an ambassador of the UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund), Muthukad visited centres for children with disability. He realised that the system there was different – there were specific centres for different kinds of disabilities. Children with different disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome were not put together.
“I wondered if we could do something by way of magic and shared my thoughts with Shailaja Teacher (Minister for Social Welfare, Woman and Child Development, Health). She liked it and the Kerala Social Security Mission took it up. They sent 23 children to the Magic Academy (run by Muthukad). We trained them in magic and they began performing in six months. Once at the Tagore Theatre, they won over an audience comprising the President of India, the state’s Governor and various ministers, by performing without a mistake for 40 minutes. The children were declared as ambassadors for a government programme called Anuyathra (a programme to turn the state disabled-friendly),” Muthukad says.
This was in 2017. Thrilled by the success, Muthukad wanted to continue the work. He opened MPower, as part of the Magic Academy, where people with disabilities could work and earn a living through magic. “Our kids (Muthukad calls them all ‘our kids’, regardless of their age) have performed two to three thousand magic shows already. They get their salaries and their provident fund like any regular employee. They became breadwinners,” he says proudly.
He decided not to stop there. If they could be trained in magic, they could also be trained in music, dance and other arts, whichever ones they were skilled in. “The idea was to help develop their skills. We had no idea it would work out so well,” Muthukad says.
Muthukad with a person with disability at DAC
The Magic Academy took on lease government space at the KINFRA Park in Thiruvananthapuram and opened the DAC. Different buildings were built for different purposes – one for dancing, one for music and so on. Experts and trained teachers were called in.
A hundred persons with disabilities between the ages of 14 and 32 are students at the DAC. It was officially inaugurated in November 2019. But in a few months, COVID-19 struck and the classes had to be shifted online.
“If that had not happened, there would have been further improvement,” says Dr Leena of the CDC. Speaking to parents to understand the ‘before’ stage of the children, the CDC realised that the training at DAC has produced ‘unbelievable changes’ in them.
“In their confidence, the activities of daily life, there has been a marked improvement. Many of them became more independent of their parents. These children were earlier so dependent on them for everything. Now they can get on the buses by themselves, attend classes and go back all on their own. They feel good when they are applauded. And they actually love going to the academy, unlike other schools, when they had to be pushed by the parents. I also need to mention the unconditional love that Muthukad gives these children,” she adds.
Muthukad’s dream project is to start a Universal Magic Centre to give jobs to persons with disabilities – a grander version of MPower.