Jagdish Chander (40) works at Hindu College in Delhi. He is also a car rally navigator who is reputed to never go wrong. Chander cannot see. He lost his eyesight due to optical nerve damage when he was six years old. He is one of those featured in The Light Within, a collection of pictures of the visually impaired by photojournalist Sipra Das. It wasn’t an easy project to execute. “There were times when I wanted to throw all that I had gathered into the Yamuna. I was that frustrated. Then I would look at the photographs I had taken and start with renewed hope and energy,” says Das.
It all began in 1999, when Das, who began her career in Kolkata in 1983, was looking for a subject to work on for her personal collection. As a photographer with a range of dailies and magazines, she had captured some major turning points in India’s political journey. “But whenever my friends or family asked me to hold an exhibition of my work, I felt that something was missing. I had worked on programmes that had a social message and I wanted to do something similar,” she says, revealing that sometime in 1999 she started putting together photographs of visually impaired people who had surmounted all odds.
But even months after she had started on it, that eureka moment necessary for the success of any big project, continued to elude her. Until she spent a night at the All India Confederation of the Blind. “In the morning, while getting ready for the day, I was surprised to find no mirror in the room. I went from room to room in search of a mirror before it struck me that a mirror in a blind school was useless. And yet, all the students were perfectly turned out and seated for breakfast. I was the odd one there,” she said. When she brought up the subject with Jawahar Kaul, the principal of the school, he said, “You can see with your eyes, but cannot see with your heart, as we can.”
“That was the defining moment for me,” Das recalls. Over the next 10 years, she travelled across the country capturing how visually challenged individuals overcame their condition to find meaning in their lives and success in their chosen fields. Her subjects, including Reshmi Sonawane, a beautician, K Ramkrishna, a banker, Poorvi T Savla, a general physician and Rahul Vijay Shirsat a photographer, among others, have just two things in common – their blindness and their determination to achieve their full potential. She has also photographed everyday moments of blind children studying, playing, or out on a field trip with friends.
Das has exhibited these pictures at different venues including the President’s House on the invitation of former president APJ Abdul Kalam. However, finding a publisher to compile the pictures into a book was difficult. “No one was interested because it is not commercial work,” says Das who reckons she has spent about 18 lakh on the project. That’s big money for someone who had to struggle to pay two instalments of 1,200 each on her first camera. Remembering those days, she recalls: “People would look at me, with my camera round my neck, like I was a weird object. Male photographers at a daily newspaper in Kolkata refused to work with me because I was a woman. My family didn’t know for a long time that I was working as a photographer.”
Das has come a long way. The Light Within, which has been published by Niyogi Books, is a testament to that. “This book is meant for those who can see or have no other physical challenge to struggle with. If the visually impaired can do so much with their lives, it is an inspiration for those who are more fortunate,” she says.