Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Amrita Gyawali: Wheeling up the ramp

Nepal. Upon seeing glamorous shots of 21-year-old Amrita Gyawali on Cybersansar—with her deep-set eyes and perfect smile—many would contend that she is one of the prettiest girls on the website.

However, only a few would know that this is a young lady who has dedicated herself to challenging social assumptions regarding women with disabilities, a young lady who has not let her personal afflictions stand in the way of her ambitions.At a time when people with disabilities are struggling to be included in various fields and professions, Amrita has taken matters into her own hands and established herself as the first model in Nepal’s fashion industry—in a wheel-chair.

Besides having 40 photographs published on the Cybersansar website, Amrita has also modelled in a ramp show organised by the Namuna College of Fashion and Technology.

Although one wouldn’t know it to look at her, considering her cheery disposition, it has taken an incredible amount of heartache and pain for Amrita to get to this point in her life. When she was 3, she lost her entire family—both her parents, her brother and sister—in a horrific bus accident in Lucknow, India. Amrita, who was the only one in her family to have survived, suffered a severe spinal injury that bound her to a wheel-chair forever, unable to walk or stand. 

She was then taken to the Jorpati-based SOS Children’s Village, an international charity that funded homes for children in various parts of the country, with one dedicated to children and young people with special needs. While these circumstances would have been enough to shatter anyone else in her place, Amrita has shown tremendous determination in trying to overcome the tragedies of her past and move forward. She now stays at the SOS Girl’s Hostel in Naxal and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Psychology at Tri Chandra College. 

As for the idea of modelling, Amrita describes being intrigued by the thought since she had been in the 9th grade. However, it wasn’t until after completing her plus two exams that the idea started taking concrete form. She recalls telling her friends about her plans, and they were instantly supportive.

One of these friends was Rama Karki, who is also a counsellor and nurse at the SOS Children’s Village. Rama has been in Amrita’s life for many years now, having seen her through some traumatic times, and the two are very close, almost like sisters. In fact, it was Rama who asked the owners of Cybersansar if they could feature Amrita on the website. Consequently, Amrita had her first photo published on the site in February of last year.

“Amrita is not only beautiful, but she is bold and confident too. Her confidence was one of the things that persuaded us to give her a chance so that she could inspire others like her to come forward,” said Abhinav Kasaju, Cybersansar’s founder. He adds that Amrita’s photos, which feature her donning a variety of jewellery, have proved quite popular with visitors to the site. 

Following this, Namuna College of Fashion and Technology offered her a spot in their fashion show last September. Although she was meant to be included with the regular models, the team decided to incorporate a different segment in the show dedicated to children with disabilities after talking to Amrita—’Dresses for Special Need Children’. 

The segment featured, along with Amrita, eight other wheel-chair users. “At first, I was a bit nervous because it’s generally assumed that modelling is only meant for tall and slim people. But when I came onto the ramp on my wheel-chair, the applause I received and the sense of support I got from the audience was very reassuring,” Amrita says. 

Despite the relatively warm reception that she’s gotten from the industry and the public so far, Amrita isn’t too sure she wants to pursue modelling as a full-time career. Talking about her recent experiences, she says, “There is still a massive difference in this field between regular and differently-abled models. Whether it has to do with sharing photographs on commercial sites like Cybersansar or taking part in ramp shows, it’s very difficult for us to get the same kind of opportunities as the others.” 

Amrita is currently involved in a number of activities aimed towards the upliftment of women with disabilities. She holds the view that in terms of advocacy on disability, although moving from a welfare approach to a right-based approach is challenging, it is also necessary. 

Disabled individuals—regardless of whether they are men or women—needn’t shy away from society and shut themselves out. If you look hard enough, she says, you will find that people are more supportive than you’d ever expected. 

Offers are still coming in. Amrita has just recently wrapped up a photo-shoot for a fashion collection centre at Chabahil; her image will soon be featured on a billboard in the city—something she is looking forward to. She has also been offered parts in a number of music videos by Nhyoo Bajracharya and other singers. For someone who had every reason to give up, Amrita’s show of strength is a rare and beautiful thing.

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