Sipra Das' photo book The Light Within: A different vision of life is the culmination of a 12-year-long project. When the photojournalist decided to make a book that would capture the lives of the visually impaired, she did not want it to inspire the usual blend of sympathy and pity. She wanted it to evoke a sense of awe and empathy at how beautifully the visually impaired are integrated into society, how diverse their worlds are and the amazing things they achieve.
Over the 12 years of her project, she used the lens of her camera to help us, the reader, see the visually impaired as part of our normal world, hoping to change our attitude towards them. As Gulzar says in the book's foreword, "They are surrounded by darkness outside but they all have a light within."
The book presents the stories of individuals who have survived to not only pursue their interest but also excel at it. Tales of struggle and survival, of despair and hope. From students and lovers to welders and shopkeepers; from photographers and musicians to chess champions and weavers, each find a special place in the pages of this sensitively compiled book that highlights their will, their perseverance in their lives. Through each story, the book gives readers glimpse of such lives which inspire us to look at life in a new way.
Here are a few stories that I'd like to highlight, as a month-long collaboration with the book's publishers Niyogi Books:
Billamangal Sardar, 14 | Mimicry artiste
Billamangal Sardan is only fourteen years old, but this spirited lad from Mograhat, Kolkata, knows a thing or two about life as a visually challenged individual. And that isn't only because he has been sightless since birth. He has seen enough of life already to be able to judge what is best for him.
Billamangal's father is a vegetable seller. His elder brother is normal. Educated in an English medium school for the visually impaired, run by the NGO Voice of World, he is a mimic and tabla player who performs in public shows. "Some people feel that I am helpless and a burden. They say so on my face. But I do not reach to their statements because I do not think it is worth it." Billamangal returns home once a year only to face insensitivity, if not outright neglect.
The World at Their Feet
Sightless girls and boys from the Voice of World centre in Kolkata experience the many moods of the sea on a beach in Digha, West Bengal, on their first trip to the coast.
Amit Dubey of Farrukhabad, Uttar Pradesh, who suffers from 90% vision impairment, paints in a drawing class at the National Association for the Blind, Delhi.
Marching towards Hope
On a misty winter morning, students of Shubham School for the Blind in the village of Fardagola in Bihar's Muzaffarpur district make their way to school.
Sukhdev Singh, 52 | Welder
Sukhdev Singh, 52, is a welder in Ludhiana, Punjab. He is almost totally sightless - he lost 80% of his eyesight in a road accident but leads a normal life with his wife and three children. The man who has been Sukhdev's employer for over twelve years swears by his efficiency. "As far as I am concerned, there is no real difference between the blind and the sighted," he asserts. Sukhdev, on his part, is a stickler for perfection. "I try my best to overcome any disability," he says. "Give me any work and I am up to it. I can do justice to it."
Rahul Vijay Shirsat, 32 | Photographer
Rahul Vijay Shirsat of Mumbai is not your average photographer. He has been sightless since birth but the remarkable young man has made a name for himself as a shutterbug. "I follow sounds to compose my frames," he says. His subjects are running vehicles, flying birds and playing children. "When I receive praise for my work, it gives me a real high and eggs me on," he adds.
Ishawanti, 23 | Student
Ishawanti, born in Jhajjar, Haryana, has been sightless for over two decades. She is a girl full of spunk. "I can smell and sense the beauty of nature," she says. Having completed a telecom customer care training stint, Ishawanti is now on the lookout for a job. "I want to be a teacher," she says. "I want to marry a good-natured normal boy."
Life is an adventure for this young student. A Political Science post-graduate, she likes reading, playing musical instruments, cooking and sports. "I love nature the most. I love the green grass, flowers and morning walks," she says.
Shankar Nayak | Physiotherapist
Shankar Nayak is a skilled physiotherapist who works for the Blind People's Association's physiotherapy unit in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. He is totally sightless but is extremely adept at providing succour to patients who go to him for orthopaedic regeneration. Shankar draws a salary of Rs 4000 a month for his services.
Sangeeta, 38 | School Teacher
Daughter of an iron trader in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, Sangeeta runs a residential school for the visually impaired, besides behind the brain behind Shubham, an NGO that helps poor children from the villages in the vicinity. Being sightless, she found all her efforts to study in a school for normal children thwarted. But her academic record has been nothing short of spectacular. She went to a school for the visually impaired and passed with flying colours, ranking tenth on the merit list. She went on to acquire MPhil and PhD degrees. In 1986, she was among the 300 university toppers who were invited by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for high tea. She was the only visually impaired person on that select list of invitees. The PM asked her what she wanted to do next. Her reply was prompt. She said she wanted to help the visually impaired lead normal lives the way she does. The rest, as they say, is history. Sangeeta has since gone from strength to strength in her mission.
Life and Laughter
Indrajit and Sharda, a sightless couple, share a moment of joy on the lawns of the Blind People's Association, Ahmedabad.
Get your copy of The Light Within by Sipra Das here. This is part of an ongoing collaboration with Niyogi Books to showcase some brilliant titles from their catalog.