It was 2009 and it had been just a few months since I had moved to Bangalore. For various personal, cultural and artistic reasons, I went through a mental shift to documenting families, friends and couples. As a bachelor, staying in Indiranagar trying to make ends meet, I was running around, hunting for gigs and making connections. One day through some dear friends, I met Venkatesh and Sarmishta who were prepping to get married. This was my first wedding photography assignment and the pressure and stress surrounding it is still a fresh part of my memory. The level of trust that your first couple puts on you is always special and that wedding day is an important springboard for any photographer. But little did we know that there was much more happening than what we saw through the camera.
On 8th February, 2009, Venky and Shammi (as we call them) took their vows but it was the same year in a land far away form Bangalore that Abhi was born.
In Shammi's words:
"Eight years ago Abhi came to know what it meant to be abandoned. Rejected. Forsaken. These are things no child should know at so frail an age. From his first day on, a tender grasp left his fingers. A bosom failed to feed him. An embrace coldened. Around that time, Venky and I were just married, longing for children from the get-go. Those tender fingers, we longed to feel. The bosom was never full to feed. Our embraces had none between us to warm us even more.
From the time he was born, Abhi was well acquainted with hospitals. During the first year, he had to get a shunt placed in his brain owing to Hydrocephalus. His first spinal surgery wasn't a great success and had to be redone years later. He went back and forth between hospital and home owing to the effects of trauma and spina bifida... The trauma of his surgeries on his little body and mind are unfathomable. In the midst of this all, Abhi learned the cheer of life in the love of his many foster moms, dads, and caregivers, not to forget, his little friends all of whom were battling similar struggles as himself. Above all, Abhi longed for a home. Every visit that prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) made was a time of testing. Would they pick me? Will they like me? The stress these children in foster homes faces is enormous. They try to outperform each other to get the attention of PAPs and in the end only one gets picked. Abhi had to relive that first rejection very many times in these 8 years. Someone always got picked, and it wasn't him."
Now allow me to note a quick observation. Isn't it incredible how all of us have such a myopic view about life? The narrative (or what psychologists call 'inner speech') in our head which tells us how things are and how inevitably, we are the hero in that narrative trying to fix the world for ourselves and sometimes attempting to fix it for others too? A common narrative for wedding photographers, their motivation and pitch, is how their work is a seminal part of precious long term memories that are made when a new family is formed. I'd be the first to admit that I'm not immune to such narratives. Far from it, I often think more than I probably should. But today, I realise that as we shoot scores or even hundreds of weddings and witness new families being formed on earth, our grandiose narratives are terribly incapable of capturing the larger picture (pun intended). From 2009 to the present day, starting with Venky and Shammi, I documented many weddings and families but little did I know that in another part of my country there was Abhi questioning why he wasn't picked up for adoption, what was wrong with him and whether he didn't deserve to have a fresh start at being part of a new family? My visual records of several new families being formed paled in front of the longings of a child.
Longing can be a terrible thing and weighs down even the strongest of us. Abhi longed for a family while Shammi and Venky went through seasons of waiting, praying and two miscarriages longing for a child.
"This past year was filled with deep seated griefs, losses and a long season of loneliness and depression for me personally. I was in a dark abyss, leaping in faith, trying to get out, only to fall back in again. I was surrounded by loneliness and sorrows within and without, with too many to number or name. Darkness became that sinister friend who never left. Until Abhi."
In October 2017, after spending countless hours with the legalities of adoption, God beautifully merged Abhi's path with Shammi and Venky's. Through many fears from parenting itself to parenting an 8 year old child with special needs, Shammi and Venky experienced their 'first rays of sunlight' and got the blessing of parenthood.
"For the first time, after a long season of waiting, I found a new kind of love and affection towards one I had never known. I knew I could love Abhi as a mother. My heart started beating for him. My prayers were consumed with thoughts about this child, his struggles, his sorrows, his needs, his future. And without a doubt, this love came from my Heavenly Father. Adopting a special needs child is quite another thing. It is not only risky but scandalous. I know many well-wishers who came to know that we were adopting, early this year. They were all happy for us, rejoiced in this decision to bring a child home. But when they later came to know that we are bringing home a child who had no sensation below his torso, they were appalled. Some were scared for us."
A neurosurgeon also told Shammi 'This child is a vegetable. Why are you wasting your life adopting him? He won't be able to walk to do anything on his own. He will be forever dependent on you. People adopt and breed the best, to become the best. Why take up what is rejected? You cannot gain anything from him.'... But a profit or 'Return On Investment' is not what Venky and Shammi had set out for. What if learning and giving is greater than gaining or receiving? What if this service and commitment is the calling that they were made for? And just what if.... It's in dying that we live and it's through broken vessels that we ourselves are mended?
And for me personally as a photographer, it almost seems like my images of their story has come to a full circle in these 8 years. From my first ever wedding assignment, to Abhi's welcome home party, to shots of the family united. This journey has been such a blessing for me!
Abhi now stands for Abhay Kumar Venkatesh. Abhay Kumar or 'Fearless Prince' poignantly indicates the unspeakably difficult past from which this beautiful child and his new family is being led through. Grace, faith and hope can seem like big cliched words which have lost much of it's meaning in common use but I also want to encourage you today my dear fellow artists; Our privilege is great and our responsibility greater. More often than not, the scope of our internal narrative is tiny compared to the vastness of the needs and possibilities around us. As we struggle to do meaningful work, I hope this story encourages you to realise that the rewards of what we do overflow our thoughts and imaginations. So why do we do what we do? As creatives, do we make art for a particular gain or to get a certain kind of return on our investment? Can love and sacrifice teach us something? Friends, we may not see the reality of our world in front of our lens immediately, but it's liberating to know that we don't have to do the heavy lifting. As fragmented and challenging as it may look, Grace is at work all around us, carrying us beyond fears, beyond paralysis and beyond uncertainity.
May we all be as open to learn from a wheelchair as we are from the latest camera.