Maitreyee Sarkar had been to the Malda Club in West Bengal countless times. It was where she would compete with her able-bodied clubmates. This time, however, it was different. She had a camera trained on her, clicking as she toiled away at practice, tracking each movement. For the 21-year-old is Ms February in a calendar, launched last month by the Kolkata-based Civilian Welfare Foundation (CWF), that captures para athletes at their inspiring best.
“The calendar is a great idea. Not many people knew about para sports till about 2008-09,” says Sarkar, who is also pursuing an MBBS degree. “More people with special abilities are taking up sports now and there is a growing awareness around it which is heartening to see.”
At the Rio Paralympics in September, India won two gold medals, one silver and one bronze, the country’s best performance at the quadrennial event. On 5 February, the foundation stone for India’s first centre of excellence for differently abled sportspersons was laid at the Sports Authority of India campus in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
Deepa Malik, who became the first Indian female para athlete to win a medal by claiming a silver in shot put during the 2016 Rio Paralympics, says there is a definite movement towards making para sports mainstream. “I hear there is already a movie announced on the life of Mariyappan (Thangavelu, who won gold in the Rio Paralympics’ high jump event). There was a mannequin of me displayed in the Haryana tableau during the Republic Day parade. There’s a definite change, and a welcome one, in the attitude towards para athletes,” says Malik.
Twelve athletes from West Bengal, a mix of amateurs, national champions and international athletes, feature in the calendar, priced at Rs500 and available on Creatheist.com.
Of the 12, sprinter Saheb Hussain, long jumper Harilal Tudu and field events athlete Rubia Chatterjee made the cut for two International Paralympic Committee events—Dubai in March and China in April. Hussain (100m) and Chatterjee (javelin) struck gold in their respective sports, while Tudu won silver at the selection trials held in Sonepat, Haryana, on 8-9 February.
“We wanted to reach more people than a photography exhibition could,” says Abhirupa Kar, president of the CWF. “We had started work on the concept in March 2016. The first idea was to use ‘disability to positivity’ as the theme. But we did not want to use the word ‘disability’, hence we came up with ‘Verve’. Most of the athletes come from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and we are trying to raise some funds through the sale of the calendars.” They have printed 700 and have sold over 100 till now.
In December, Parliament passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill. And para athletes seem to have become the poster children for a country that is moving towards positive change in its attitude to differently abled people.
“That was one of the things we wanted to convey through the pictures,” says Archan Mukherjee, one of the three photographers for the project, along with Sourav Chakraborty and Souvik Banerjee. “We wanted to show them as larger than life.”
In the black and white world of sports, heroes are easy to define. But with India taking a mainly top-down approach to the development of para sports, a lot of athletes continue to languish due to lack of funds and awareness.
“The development is slow, and exposure and facilities are limited to a few,” says Shudeep Baidya, a basketball player from West Bengal, and Mr November on the calendar. Baidya, 34, who holds a day job at an international bank, is keen to push the cause of para sports. “Something like a calendar is a great way to start,” he says. “It is to show people that we coexist.”