Visual ode to redefining sporting abilities

This is a photograph from the ‘Verve’ calendar – it shows a male cyclist smiling and holding aloft above his head a Ridley bicycle with his right hand. He is holding the bicycle at the pedals joint. He is in full cycling gear, with a helmet and arm sleeves, and is wearing an orange tee. We can see only the upper half of his body, chest onwards, almost as if he was airborne. He is in an outdoor location. The photograph is taken early evening, against the sunlight, which is shining through the left wheel and adding to the airborne effect. Photo credit: Souvik Banerjee

Insight, Creations, Feb '17
Suchandra Ganguly on the story behind Verve – Where the Mind is without Fear, a table calendar for 2017 to express solidarity with para-athletes in Bengal

What does the word ‘calendar’ remind you of – device for keeping time, counting days, or making a fashion statement? How about a reminder that says it’s time to redefine sporting abilities, rather ability itself? For that is what Civilian Welfare Foundation set out to do through a table calendar on the Paralympics and para-athletes, created in collaboration with photographers Archan Mukherjee, Sourav Chakraborty and Souvik Banerjee.

Photograph shows a display of the ‘Verve’ calendars lying flat on a table. Cover page of the calendar with ‘Verve’ logo and a sports graphic are visible. One of the calendars is upright and shows a cyclist with an open urban space in the background. Photo credit: Souvik Banerjee

For nearly 60 years, the Paralympics as a sporting event have been part of our societal existence but never given the importance they deserve. Our age old perspective on what sports should be all about is probably to blame, but also the outlook that the Paralympics are about ‘sympathy’ rather than achievement or excellence.

At Civilian Welfare Foundation, when we first began work on promoting the Paralympics, it was with mixed feelings – personal and collective – feelings of both regret and hope. Regret that we came to know about the existence of such an incredible sports genre so late in our lives, and hope that the Paralympic sports, with proper training and collective support, could revolutionize the way we saw Indian sports altogether. It was also about understanding disability rights – from the micro level, the Paralympics movement, to the macro, the larger disability rights movement.

This is also a photograph from the ‘Verve’ calendar – it shows a male para-athlete running on a synthetic track. He has a muscular but lean frame, is about 6 feet tall, has short cropped hair, is wearing purple shorts, running shoes and an amulet around his neck. Photo credit: Archan Mukherjee

Verve as a calendar is an attempt to express what we have understood about disability and the Paralympics over the years. Yes, it is indeed difficult to make sense of this learning through just 24 pages of a calendar. But an effort had to be made, and in the process pay tribute to the courage of Indian para-athletes. The calendar pages showcase the diversity in sports taken up by para-athletes, as also their gender, age and their abilities. (Click here to check out the range of sports included in the Paralympics; and here to read about the disability classifications for para-athletes at the Paralympics).

The stories projected on each page of the calendar speak about the status of Paralympics in India at large, but also specifically about the para-athletes in Bengal. To understand why prioritizing and promoting local sports is important, we can look at the National Basketball Association of United States, where promotion and development of basketball starts from the school or college level and moves up on to the state level. Para-athletes from Bengal were chosen for the calendar to highlight the ‘local to global’ scope of the Paralympics, a scope that is yet to be actualized.

“The struggle is more outside than within the track lines,” I remember an athlete telling me once. Indeed, the struggle of para-athletes in India is not just about fighting stigma and discrimination, but also about shedding the image of sympathy that the Paralympics generate. At a global level, the Paralympics don’t just entertain but also inspire. At the Rio Summer Paralympics last year, there were record ticket sales and audiences that surpassed even the figures for the Olympics on certain days. But in my opinion the Indian perspective on Paralympic sports still needs to evolve a lot more.

I am never happy comparing the Paralympics to cricket, but it is unfortunate that there is no better comparison to drive home a few points. With the inflow of money into the ‘cricket business’ since the 1990s, a lot of changes took place in relation to the sporting scenario that were radical for their time – for instance, cable television and consumer goods advertising. It provided a career opportunity for cricketing icons like Sachin Tendulkar, and raised India’s stock in terms of cricketing prowess like never before. There has been no stopping this trend, and these developments speak a lot about the role played by the media and advertising in making cricket and cricketers popular. Today, the same narrative is unfolding in football, badminton and kabbadi. Though we see all kinds of individual and teams sports being played by the para-athletes, when will they as sports persons and the Paralympics as a worthy sporting event catch the imagination of spectators, media and the advertising industry in India?

Quote: “The struggle is more outside than within the track lines,” I remember an athlete telling me once. Indeed, the struggle of para-athletes in India is not just about fighting stigma and discrimination, but also about shedding the image of sympathy that the Paralympics generate. At a global level, the Paralympics don’t just entertain but also inspire. But the Indian perspective on Paralympic sports still needs to evolve a lot more.At this point of time the Paralympics in India are not an organized sector of sports, not in the sense the Olympics are. The cause of Paralympians in India is not just a fight for equal rights with other non-disabled sportspersons but a fight for human rights. And it has a multi-layered context. Verve tries to portray some of these nuances.

The number of female athletes covered in the calendar is four as against eight male ones. This reflects the gender disparity in the participation of Indians in the Paralympics. Till date only four female athletes from India could qualify for the Paralympic Games in last 40 years (my own desk-based assessment). There is greater representation of individual sports in the calendar than team sports, which is symbolic of the Bengal scenario with regard to Paralympic sports. The reason is mainly economic. Para-athletes in the state still struggle for funding and sponsorship of their tournaments, and almost all of them represented in the calendar have dealt with failure in trying to lure funds in spite of outstanding performances.
 
After the unprecedented success of the Indian athletes at the Rio Summer Paralympics (four medals in all, including two gold and the first ever won by a female athlete from India) some changes took place in the Paralympics scene in the country. The games were showcased in Doordarshan and other private television channels for the first time. Prizes and felicitations dominated the scene. For many, the revolution in the Indian Paralympics movement seemed to have started. For me, it hadn’t. There was no talk of any initiative to conduct state or national Paralympic camps. No schemes to fund economically challenged para-athletes were announced. No policy level interventions were announced so that para-athletes could apply for government jobs based on their sporting excellence; the criterion there still remained disability.

Another photograph from the ‘Verve’ calendar – it shows a basketball player in a wheel chair on an outdoor concrete ground. He is bouncing the ball with his left hand, and with the other, not visible, is possibly navigating the movement of the wheel chair. He is wearing a black singlet, orange track pants, white and black sports shoes, and a clunky watch on his left wrist. He has a huge centaur tattooed on his left upper arm. Photo credit: Sourav Chakraborty

We need to set the bar much higher. Verve is a call out on behalf of every Paralympian in the country to claim their rightful space in Indian sports, where they receive sponsorships on merit, perhaps as part of a company brand building exercise, and not just as a charitable donation or part of a corporate social responsibility obligation.

The funds raised from the sale of Verve calendars, each priced at Rs.500, will be used to support the para-athletes in Bengal. One hundred calendars have been sold so far. For enquiries, please contact civilianwelfarefoundation@gmail.com.

Photo credits: Souvik Banerjee (main photo); subsequent photo credits Souvik Banerjee, Archan Mukherjee and Sourav Chakraborty – in the same order as the photos appear.

Author Photo

Suchandra Ganguly

Suchandra Ganguly is a Paralympic sports, disability, gender and sexuality rights activist. She is a founding member of Civilian Welfare Foundation, a youth social work venture. Stereotype breaker, philanthropist, realist and independent are her favourite personal adjectives.

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