The I’m Special calendar: A new-year revolution

Prateek Khandelwal, an entrepreneur, is Mr January. Pratishtha Deveshwar, a student at Oxford, is Ms February. Mr March is Tinkesh Kaushik, a fitness trainer. The list goes on to feature people in sports, business, fitness, fashion and academics.

The I’m Special 2021 calendar features 12 young differently abled achievers from across India. Brought out annually by the NGO Swarga Foundation, this will be its sixth edition. Each year, it picks people to fit a fresh theme.

In 2016, it was differently abled people from Coimbatore, where the NGO is based. In 2017, it was people from all walks of life, from across India. The third edition was dedicated to people in adaptive sports, the fourth to differently abled women, and for 2020 it was married couples, for the theme Love & Beyond.

“We want this calendar to generate a sense of respect for differently abled people, to show that our disability doesn’t stop us from reaching our full potential,” says Swarnalatha J, who co-founded Swarga with her husband Guruprasad TS in 2014, a few years after being diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis. She also conceived of and designs the calendars.

The 2021 calendar features six women and six men, costs Rs 350 and can be ordered on the NGO website. Proceeds go towards free treatment. Last year it was free physiotherapy for over 2,000 people. This year it will be hydrotherapy.

While initially the Foundation had to seek out people to feature, as word of the calendar spread, Swarga began receiving applications. Last year they received about 80. This year it was 160. “We received so many applications this time that we decided to have a jury shortlist the final 12,” Swarnalatha says.

The jury of seven was drawn from the fields of photography, filmmaking, education and disability rights activism. “Satendra [Singh Lohia, Mr July, from Bhind] crossed the 42-km Catalina channel. To me he was as strong a contender as Pratishtha [Deveshwar, from Hoshiarpur] who is doing a Master’s in public policy at Oxford. Both require a tremendous amount of will, energy and thinking to achieve,” says Swaarup S Chatterjee, a jury member and photographer from Mumbai. Both made it to the calendar.

Lohia and Deveshwar are wheelchair-bound. Khandelwal, the entrepreneur, is paraplegic. Kaushik, the fitness trainer, lost three of his limbs in a kite-flying accident. He loves sports, so for his calendar portrait, he chose to pose standing on his prosthetic legs, lifting a bicycle in the air with his right arm.

On each calendar page is a brief descriptor and sometimes a quote from the featured person.Mr May, Pranav Bhakshi, a model from New Delhi, stares piercingly out of the frame. “Autism is my superpower,” he says. Mr November, Sai Kaustuv Dasgupta from Bengaluru, dressed in a red shirt and a gold bordered veshti smiles up at you from his wheelchair. He has brittle bone disease and is a happiness coach.

Ms October, a visually impaired karate greenbelt from Punjab, Divya Sharma gives us her best kick-punch. Sharma is also an RJ, content writer, motivational speaker and has a Master’s degree in English.

This was not the first calendar shoot for Ms April Priya Bhargav of Noida. She was Ms India Wheelchair in 2017 and featured in the Miss Wheelchair World calendar shot in Poland. The calendar features her seated on a picnic blanket, her wheelchair relegated to the background. “I have lupus, an incurable autoimmune disease,” she says. “I was determined to make this an impactful shoot, so I decided to step out of my wheelchair.”

Swarnalatha’s personal favourite is Mr June, Venkatachalam M from Gudiyatham, Tamil Nadu. “With no access to sporting infrastructure, he has made great strides in Paralympic sports and also plays for the Tamil Nadu Wheelchair Basketball team,” she says.

Ms August Nishtha Dudeja, a former Miss Deaf Asia, a judo practitioner and an international Deaflympics tennis player. Twirling a red umbrella in her pink wheelchair, disability rights activist Virali Modi flashes a smile in the September frame.

At 40, Swarnalatha closes the calendar as the model for December, her fourth time in the calendar herself.

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