The photographs made the hair on my neck stand on end.
Image after image.
Deep in my being, I felt it: this was the beginning of something.
I don’t have a word for that something. But it has a feeling – of hope. And it has a smell – of change. (And if you are wondering how change smells, ask the women around the world who took part in the Woman’s March on 21 st January 2017).
Project Rising Above is unique. It is a calendar that features 13 handsome men and women who are missing a limb or two. I am told, it is India’s first amputee calendar.
Strong, sexy, beautiful people. Now they have an apt hashtag too #RisingAbove
Project Rising Above celebrates not just the courage and resilience of these 13 men and women from across the country. But it also proclaims the Adonis and Venus in them. That is important. Because this is a country that cannot say “beauty” “glamorous” “sensuous” and “physically challenged” in the same sentence.
Crooking a finger at such prejudices, 13 differently-abled sportspeople, dancers and botanist gloriously display their amputated limbs and prosthetic limbs. Sheathed in confidence. Oozing sex appeal (oh yes, they do).
Seeing them standing tall and unapologetically ratifying their beauty and allurement, I wanted to jump to my feet and clap my hands in glee. And I did.
To think that A Sunny Square played a teeny-tiny role in the germination of the idea makes me elated.
2016 was a year of accidents (physically) for Preeti Rai, Co-founder of Mission Smile – Pledge your day. She was laid up in bed for extended periods of time. One day, instead of staring up at the ceiling and ruing her fate, she read a story on SSQ.
When Do you know this woman? (Read the story here) was first published on SSQ, it went viral within 24 hours. The woman in the article was Shalini Saraswathi who had lost all four limbs to a rare illness and was later preparing to run her first marathon.
Moved by the story, Preeti tracked Shalini down for a chat.
During the conversation, both women realised that they weren’t happy about how photographs of amputees always project them as “inspirational” but never captured them as sexy, beautiful and strong beings.
One thought led to another. The dots connected, feelings aligned. Soon the women asked: Why not? This was followed by, “Let’s do it.”
That’s how India’s first amputee calendar took shape. But why a calendar?
Preeti says, “Instead of giving expensive new year gifts to friends, I wanted to gift something which would be cherished and also make people look at things differently. That is the Mission Smile way of gifting.” Though initially, Preeti thought of doing a coffee table book, she soon realised that mobilising funds for the venture would be an uphill task. “But I am an adamant person,” she says, “I didn’t give up and decided to a calender instead.”
She also convinced photographer Kumaran G, stylist Sitara Kudige and Art Director Kanick Samuel to come on board. “They pledged” their days and did the assignment for free,” Preeti says.
She chose 13 ‘models’ from across the country. Most of them award-winning sportspeople. The project features Shalini Saraswati (dancer, blade runner and BPO professional) in a stunning red dress, Samuel T (hockey player),Mariappan Thangavelu (Paralympic gold medallist, high jump), Manasi Joshi (World No.3 badminton player), Suyash Jadhav (swimmer), Arle Ramachandra Rao (basketball player), Vinod Rawat (Biker, actor, marathon runner), Vishwas KS (Swimming champion), Briju Mohan & Antara Telang (both dancers and IT professional and Content head respectively), Dhaval Khatri (artist), Sheryl Rebecca (aspiring model, botanist), and Kiran Kanojia (India’s first woman blade runner and It Professional).
The nouveau-models were both nervous and excited. Almost all of them were facing the camera for the first time. “But when they reached the studios, put on their makeup and faced the lights, they knew they were part of something big,” Preeti recalls.
They gave it their all. Without complaints. Manasi Joshi who had just returned from Beijing after winning a bronze, attended her best friend’s wedding and immediately flew down to Bangalore for the shoot (which lasted till 3 am) in spite of being bone tired. Yet, with no clamour, all she wanted to know was whether the crew “got their shot”. Shalini stood close to three hours on her blades. “No griping, no regrets,” Preeti says. The script never changed for all 13 of them.
Preeti raised around 2.5 lakhs through crowd-funding for the project which took seven months to complete. She also found an enthusiastic financial supporter in Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder of Biocon.
When the calendar was released, the models were awestruck with their images. They had never done something like this.
Nobody had ever asked them to be a part of something like this before.
Nobody saw them as beautiful and strong. Other than folks with inspiring life stories.
Manasi is confident that this calendar will change the perception of “corporates and others towards disability. If not today, it will happen tomorrow. A change will come for sure,” she says.
As for Shalini, she’s elated. “I am happy to be portrayed differently. And hopeful of being viewed as not just a disabled woman, but also strong and beautiful. There’s a sense of satisfaction of being part of change.”
The project has changed something within Preeti too. “After watching Shalini’s husband Prashanth carry her on his back during the shoot or seeing photog Kumaran feeding Vishwas (artist with no hands) or shaving Suyash’s beard or all the thirteen models patiently working for hours on end to get that perfect shot, I think we, the able-bodied, became better humans and complained less.”
Each image is accompanied by an appropriate ode. And one such poesy aptly sums up Project Rising Above: It is the drive that propels you forward, limbs just help the cause.
If you are interested in placing 50 or more copies of the calendar then message Being You on their Facebook page
All photos courtesy: Being You