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The Stars Shone Brightly That Evening

The stage was set. The guests had arrived and were seated in their designated places. The event was all set to begin, to entertain us, to inform us and to take us into the worlds of our stars of the evening.

It was only as the event began to unfold, one realised that this was no ordinary evening. One also realised that this was no ordinary awards ceremony. It was a confluence of extraordinary people. It was about inspiring people. People whose lives would touch us. People whose stories and achievements would impact our lives for a long time to come.

This was the evening of the 9th CavinKare Ability Awards that took place on the 19th of February 2011 in Chennai. Each year, the awards are given to those heroes, whose poignant experiences and daring adventures, treading the path less travelled, creating a path where there were none have paved the way for others to follow, with hope, optimism and faith and touching the entire human kind with their deeds. Four such persons with disabilities are singled out each year and applauded as examples for all to emulate.

The evening began on an emotional note, as it was dedicated to a person very close to Ability Foundation, who had not only been a pillar of strength to the Foundation from the time of inception, as a founder trustee, but was also Jayshree Raveendran's mother – Smt. Leela Swamy. Following the opening prayer song, rendered beautifully by Ms. Uma Ramanan, a short film on the previous years' winners immediately put the audience onto the spirit of the evening. The dance performance by Astad Deboo and the street children from Salaam Balak Trust was truly poetry in motion. The minimal yet complex choreography was based on the Bhakti Rasa. Then came the introduction to the recipients of 2011 and the focus shifted to these stars of the evening: Harman Singh Sidhu, Babli Gambhir, Varun Jain and Sujatha Burla. Thunderous applause filled the hall and their families looked on with emotional pride. The awards ceremony began with citations being read and then the trophies and cheques were presented by celebrities and chief guests… as it encapsulated the personal triumphs of each recipient.

Revathy, our master of ceremonies of the evening touchingly brought out, how important it was to applaud the winning streaks


of the winners as well as the family support they had received. Someone to laugh with, someone to cry with, a shoulder to lean on, and a nudge to prod you on. This time, the Awards celebrated not just the personal triumphs but those of their families as well.

Inspiration did not stop with the Award winners alone. There was also Major General SK Razdan, India's first and only officer of the Indian Army who had risen to the rank of Major General despite being a wheelchair user – who was one of our Chief Guests of the evening. His story of courage in the line of duty touched an emotional chord among many in the audience.

The importance of following one's heart, one's convictions, one's faith in oneself, regardless of success or failure, was underlined that evening, leaving all in the audience charged with inspiration to make more out of their lives. “They say there is a light at the end of the tunnel but then sometimes, the light may seem too far off… that is when we need to take out a torch, light up our paths and carry on. Make your own way. Plough through new fields. If you desire something and if you have the determination, you can do it. No son of a gun can stop you from doing it. Therefore, rise and shine,” said our General… a truly motivating thought for every one in the packed hall.

There was more… our other special guest of the evening, Sri Ramachandra Guha, well known writer and historian, while paying rich tributes to the winners stressed that they were extraordinary individuals who had overcome many odds to lead nourishing and creative lives. He chose to equate the struggle of our winners to the struggle that we, as a nation, went through at a time when no one had given us a realistic chance or paid us any heed and yet despite this, India had emerged as one of the great nations of the modern world, very similar in comparison with the struggles of the recipients of CavinKare Ability Awards, he said. He also went on to point out that, “the strength of a democracy is in the social institutions that mediate between the citizen and the state, and make sure that even though citizens who, because of their circumstances have not enjoyed, shall we say an advantage in life, have been able to take their rightful place as honourable, dignified, hard working, upright citizens of India. I salute the Ability Foundation for their work not just in honouring these awardees every year but their work in deepening the very idea of India,” he said highlighting the importance of civil society in the context of nation building.

To those who thought that the surprises of the evening were over, there was yet another one coming: the rendition of the Silent Indian National Anthem! Our National Anthem signed rather than sung, by young children with disabilities: with and without hearing impairment. And thus bringing to the fore that you don't really need a spoken language to connect with people, you just need to be able to communicate.

So nonplussed were the thousand odd people in the audience, we tried our best to rush hither and thither recording the voices we heard… some of which are here reproduced for you…



Dr MOHINI GIRI, Chairperson, Guild of Service

My association with Ability Foundation has been the most rewarding experience that I have had. To know that the selection process is so fair and so wide, that is fulfilling. The fact that it provides a platform for the deserving, that is joyous. I remember that it had smaller beginnings, the magnitude is more, but the soul is still the same. Thanks to this, there is greater awareness now among the public. It has gone beyond just the awardees and has begun building awareness among people, and once you do that you have won half the battle.”


The awardees at the CavinKare Ability Awards Ceremony on Saturday, 19th February, 2011 left us with an indelible and overwhelming sense of humility. We were so impressed with the professionally executed evening, balanced with a stunning dance performance by Astad Deboo and his group of dancers and inspirational Awardees. Our congratulations to the team for yet again reminding us that there is ability in disability.”

PAUL SELLERS, Director, British Council, South India

It was an honour to be invited to the 2011 CavinKare Ability Awards ceremony. The evening filled us all with immense pride. The event is a real tribute to the dedication of those who are working so hard to build awareness on ability issues, and in doing so, making the lives of those with disabilities in India more promising by the day. I also had the opportunity after the ceremony to relax with the awardees over a delicious dinner, and to hear their stories first-hand. The British Council is very proud to be associated with these inspiring people and we look forward to the 2012 Awards!”

ARATHI ABRAHAM, Visual Communication Designer

The CavinKare Ability Awards are THE celebration of a person's abilities. Each winner's story is an inspiration. It persuades us to go ahead and use life's challenges as a springboard for greater achievement. A big life lesson for all of us that evening, especially so, for my 13 year old son who said at the end, that a challenge is all you need to find success. Thank you.”

SAI JAYALAKSHMY, National Tennis Champion

As each recipient of the Cavinkare Ability Award went up on stage and their story was shown on the big screen, I have to admit I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Even as I write this piece I have goosebumps just thinking about the courageous stories of the awardees. Each winner had to overcome adversities. It would have been so easy to give in, lie back and wallow in self-pity, but these bravehearts fought one and grew from strength to strength.”


BLAAZE, Rap Artist

Another year went by, and I found myself anxiously waiting to see whom we would honour today for their amazing abilities. Unlike any other awards show, this feels so human. So personal. So real. So worthwhile. The videos of the awardees highlighting the strength and courage were an eye opener. On this occasion being asked to present the citation was overwhelming. I wanted to shout in the top of my voice how great these achievers are. I only wish that we could all see them and learn what faith and determination really is. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this. God Bless. Peace.”

SRIDEVI REDDY, Principal, KRMM School

Awards like these provide a platform to show how a person with disability can set an example to the world. My friend who accompanied me to the event for the first time was a young man of 23 years. I noticed the tears that rolled down his cheeks when General S K Razdan came on stage and narrated his encounter with terrorists in Kashmir that had led to his present situation. Thank you, Ability Foundation, for giving me the opportunity to be part of such a wonderful experience. In the words of my favourite singer Louis Armstrong," What a wonderful world....”

SULOCHANA MANI, Educationalist

I have been attending the CavinKare Ability Awards function for many years. This year it was scintillating to watch Astad Deboo and his group of young dancers. All the four winners of the awards were breathtaking in their achievements. As if that was not inspiration enough, there was also Major Gen. Razdan. His speech, full of army lingo, was cheerful and his courage and attitude were inspiring. This year too, as with every year, we came away humbled and inspired by the strength and beauty of the human spirit.”


I sat glued to the chair and watched with tears trickling down my cheeks. Tears, not with pity for the heroes on stage, but with my heart brimming with admiration! Today it dawned on me that these awards to people with disabilities far surpassed all realms! They were truly deserving of every word of praise.”

REVA ANANDA, Radio Producer

A last minute invite to the CavinKare Ability Awards 2011 by a friend brought me to Sir Mutha Venkata Subbah Rao Hall. The programme was anchored by Actor Revathy and every word was translated in sign language. That was when I realised I was amongst some very special people. It was an award show that was not just about glitz and glamour, but feel and fervour. A beautician who was once deemed ugly by all around her, a paralysed adventurer, a paraplegic television anchor, a road crash victim who now works for road safety; these are not just inspiring stories of real people but a catalyst to change the way my life was led all this while. When I was just getting overwhelmed the day's events, Sunil Kumar Razdan, India's first paraplegic Major-General summed it all up; "If you are weak in your knees, despite your ability, you will be an incapable person.”


CavinKare Ability Mastery Awards

The Mastery Awards which are three in number are for those achievers who revel in the sheer joy of living and have become masters in their chosen fields.


BABLI GAMBHIR, Jaora, Madhya Pradesh

Fighting attitudinal segregation as a result of short hands, Babli Gambhir turned the tables on societal prejudice by excelling in a profession that required perpetual use of her hands: the beauty profession. This spunky, young lady from the small town of Jaora, today, is called the girl with “golden hands”

Babli Gambhir could have chosen to become a school teacher, but she was firm that it was her hands that would provide the “magic touch”. She thus did a beauty course and opened a beauty parlour - one of the very first in a small town like Jaora. In doing so, she had to look beyond an orthopedic impairment and the attitude of a society that was male-dominated and conservative on gender issues. Hence, for Babli, winning the CavinKare Ability Mastery Award truly paved the way for further possibilities, opportunities and living her dream.

The youngest of eight siblings, Babli was born with both her arms half formed, her elbow joint missing and some fingers fused. She had two fingers functioning in one hand and three in the other. Her condition left even her own mother baffled on how to get her daughter to learn the use of her hands. In fact, her parents were advised to “poison” her off in her own interest! However, her doting father did not see Babli's hands as an impairment and encouraged her to develop its use and to gain maximum dexterity


and control.

Babli recollects how her father bought her a dholak at a time when her hands could barely reach them. With perseverance, Babli managed to learn to play the instrument. That was the first achievement that motivated her to try to accomplish anything with her hands. Her father, to whom Babli attributes much of her success, taught Babli an important lesson - the need to dream big. Outside of her house however, her hands were perpetually commented upon and even mocked. Babli could have easily become emotionally scarred and disillusioned for life, but the support of her father kept her going throughout her childhood.

Babli lost her father when she was 10 years old and was devastated. She was soon sent away to a larger town to study. There she did not thrive and returned after a SSC, with a feeling of inferiority and total worthlessness. Things changed for her when her sister took her under her wing and Babli began to discover that her 'deformed hands' were in fact capable of much beauty. Her sister was the next person to stand by her to pursue her dreams. She completed her MA in English Literature. Then she found her true calling in the beauty business. She had the conviction and self-belief to train in beauty services, something that really required dexterous use of hands. 'Why should I limit myself?' she asked of herself constantly.

Thus began Babli's road to success. It started as a small, single-chair-and-mirror set up that offered basic services. This was transformed through sheer hard work, to a large beauty parlour right in the heart of town. Babli recalls, “ I was the first person to bring a beauty parlour like this in Jaora. People spend a lot of money in my parlour. They have full faith in me. What more can I ask for?” The beauty parlour called Sheen, offers services using the Cheryl brand of cosmetics. In fact, the cosmetic brand chose to showcase Babli's beauty parlour as a “success story” in one of their internal newsletters. She now has to her credit, a large clientele who prefer her parlour to the larger ones at Bhopal and Indore.

Today, Babli's parlour offers a whole range of beauty services. She has a staff of 15 young girls, many of who are from backward and neglected backgrounds. This apart, she has also trained about 700 to 800 girls, which has further given her the confidence to think on starting a beauty academy for girls from underprivileged and marginalised sectors. Babli says, “ I am never satisfied. I want to achieve more and more.” Her self-confidence and unwillingness to let go off her dreams make her a real winner. Says Babli, “The CavinKare Ability Mastery Award makes me feel even more triumphant. It is a validation of self-belief and has given me wings to soar higher and achieve further.”





TV anchor, entrepreneur, businesswoman, social worker, Sujatha Burla is all these and more. A beauty with brains and with a heart of gold, there are really no full stops in Sujatha's life.

It is difficult to pen down a description of Sujatha. Perhaps, one could just say that she is, quite simply, an example for others to emulate. Not only is she a successful business woman and a media person, she is also a caring person giving back to society: lending a helping hand to orphans with disabilities. She veritably lives her organisation's tagline, “Life beyond imagination.”

In 2001, when Sujatha was on her way to Shirdi with friends, the car she was travelling in crashed into a lorry. “The others had broken arms, legs… all of which could be fixed, but I'd been asleep in the car when the accident happened and my body was relaxed. My neck thus got twisted and my spine got broken. We were all taken to a nearby hospital and they were immediately able to see that I had a spinal injury. So an ambulance was hired to take me to Apollo Hospital in Hyderabad,” she remembers.

In the four months in hospital she was operated on by neurosurgeons for bone stabilisation. With all the misinformation around her case, it took another six months before she decided to squarely face the fact that she would never walk again. “There's so little awareness about paraplegics in India!” she exclaims. “You leave the hospital with a discharge summary that lists medicines and mentions physiotherapy. Then you go on for years and years thinking that you are going to walk again because doctors tell you that you have to keep trying. Nobody tells you how critically important physiotherapy is. Nobody tells you how dangerous bedsores are. Six months after my accident, when I was able to operate my laptop again, I read about Christopher Reeves. He had also been in an accident that left him a paraplegic and nine years later, he died of bedsores. Well, if Superman


had never been able to walk again, what were my chances, I thought. For me that was the big turning point. I knew that I had to stop marking time and start a new life for myself. I started going for physiotherapy at NIMS, Hyderabad, knowing that I had to make the best of what was left of my body.” She became more informed about her condition and began to take good care of herself and guarded herself against bedsores. Through the entire period of her recovery, she remained positive, never once losing faith in herself and in her ability to bounce back.

Her focus next, was to ensure that she led an independent life of dignity. It wasn't easy. A lot had changed around her after the accident. “Just before my accident, I had learned still photography, industrial photography and started my own studio along with a partner. I was also preparing to go to USA to attend a professional course in photography. After the accident, my partner continued with the studio and I had to then think what I could do to make myself financially independent… I also realised how alone I was. My father was so disturbed by my illness that he fell ill and two years later, he died. My two brothers and sisters were all busy with their own lives and moved on to other places. My many friends too began staying away, perhaps they were frightened of how they would face me in this condition.”

With her previous experience in photography and fashion, she started a home furnishing textile unit. Her promptness and quality of work soon earned her a loyal clientele and her business grew. She also dabbled in stock market trading for a while, something she could do sitting at home with a computer and an internet connection. Her own experiences of grappling with situations during the recovery from her accident, made her start an NGO called Shraddha. The organisation helped people handle their disability with accurate information and maintain a positive attitude. Through this, she met other NGO workers and created a strong support group.

As her network grew, Sujatha was invited to give inspirational talks at prestigious institutes and came into the media eye. This led to widespread recognition and a number of awards. At one of the award ceremonies, she met Ravi Prakash, CEO of TV 9 – a meeting which was to change her life as it eventually resulted in a high-profile job as the anchor of her own chat show, “Close Encounters with Suzy”. The channel promoted her as “The most beautiful anchor in Andhra Pradesh”, something that created immense audience curiosity. The channel and its guests kept silent about Sujatha's disability. On the completion of fifteen episodes her condition was revealed for the first time to viewers, her story of courage truly surprised and moved the audience.

Doing the show itself was tough, especially the gruelling schedules under the harsh arc lights. “It was initially difficult for me,” admits Sujatha, “just sitting at 90 degrees is hard work and I would get giddy after a while. Each show takes about twelve hours – travel, make up, two hours of interview, but I love doing it! I find the celebs I talk to really open up with me.”

It's now ten years since I became a paraplegic. I have achieved a few things… and most of all… I do not have any bedsores… which to me, is a huge achievement. I know that I have many years ahead of me and I have many more things to accomplish,” she sums up.

It is Sujatha's enormous self-belief that has made her accomplish so many different things in her young life...with the bright smile firmly in place on her face.



VARUN JAIN, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

Adventure… thy name is Varun. Becoming a wheelchair user at age twenty, at a time when life was seemingly near perfect, his infallible never-say-die spirit of adventure, goaded him on to take on routes where “angels fear to tread”… river rafting, mountaineering, kayaking, lonely road trips on a Quad Bike… passions that set one's adrenaline rushing. His rewarding career, plus his determination to create awareness for accessible infrastructure and equal status for persons with disabilities, singles out Varun as a champion. In his own words, “Adversity causes some people to breakdown and others to break records.”

Varun Jain has lived life twice. His first innings ended when he was an aspiring student, all of 19 years. His second innings began at the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital where his survival was nothing short of a miracle. Since then, for Varun, there has been only one motto in life: to live life as beautifully as anyone else.

Varun was the lone survivor of a car accident in 2004 in which three other friends died. Says Varun, “Life came to a grinding halt and my world turned upside down. I was in a state of shock and it took me a long time to understand my medical condition. I was thoroughly upset and cocooned myself into a shell. However, one fine day, I decided that my life couldn't go on this way and that however hard life's challenges were, I had to take them in my stride and ever since, there has been no looking back.”

Before the accident, Varun was a model who walked on a ramp. After the accident, the college management made a ramp for him to ensure that he had easy access to his academic pursuits. Looking back on the past, Varun says, “There is a difference between a person born with disability and one who has acquired it, especially at the peak of his or her youth. My diaphragm was affected and I had lost my voice yet my zeal to sing made me overcome this problem. When I realised I could not even talk, I


started to practice to scream and to sing rock songs. I ensured that I expanded my lung capacity and today I can sing comfortably.”

Varun's next goal was to become financially independent. He got himself involved with his family business. He transformed his old fashioned business to a professionally managed one, by putting his education to best use. He also became a consultant for a well known beverage company and witnessed a steep rise in his learning curve. His desire for independence was so strong that he wanted to lead a day-to-day life that required minimum reliance on others. He taught himself how to drive a car modified to suit his needs. In all his efforts, his supportive family always stood by him.Yet, Varun couldn't help but feel that something was amiss. While his achievements were already many, he somehow felt that much of this was mundane and did not appeal to his adventure-loving persona. He felt he could push himself to do more, to explore uncharted territories as it were. He had always enjoyed a sense of adventure and he did not want his disability to make him feel differently about this. The idea of pursuing adventure sports began to grip him. In his hard fought battle to lead a productive life, the only thing missing was a sense of thrill and an adrenaline high. Adventure sports thus helped overcome this lacunae in his life.

Of course, there were difficulties. There were barriers and fears within him that he needed to overcome and there were issues related to accessibility. He took these up as a challenge and trained to improve his strength and endurance to begin this new chapter in his life.

His first adventure was river rafting. Says this Limca Book of Records holder: “I did river rafting in April 2009 to test my limits against nature. It was a tedious task and I had many barriers. For someone with no chest or trunk balance, the feasibility analysis showed little scope to perform. However, with my zeal and enthusiasm, I completed the 14km journey of rafting, kayaking and swimming. I was the first paraplegic river rafter of India.” Varun used the event as a tool to spread awareness for accessibility.

His next adventure was in May 2010. He decided to do a road trip on a 300 cc Quad Bike. The 120 kms stretch from Rishikesh to Mussorie, reaching an altitude of 7000 ft above sea-level, served to create awareness for accessible infrastructure and equal status for persons with disabilities. The ride sure was a bumpy one! Talking of this exciting and dangerous experience, Varun said, “Disability is not incapability. Driving the Quad Bike was like riding a horse. There were steep passages in between and the roads were narrow and uninvitingly dangerous. However, I completed the task in the calculated time and with a lot of fun!

Varun's mantra for life is that anything is possible for anyone in this world – disabled or not. All one needs is the right approach. He aims to achieve great deeds in physical endurance and through this, increase awareness on making life accessible for disabled persons. He wants to break barriers- mental and physical. He constantly dreams, thinks and chants: where there is a will, there is a way!



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