Directors With Lakshmi

Lakshmi with the co-founders of Viva n Diva — (R) Manan Shah, (L) Rupesh Jhavar

Think fashion, and you conjure images of svelte bodies, hourglass figures, glowing complexion. And perfect faces with flawless skin.

Think again.

Think fashion, think Laxmi Agarwal, a young woman who happens to be an acid zithromax attack survivor, and the brand ambassador of ethnic clothing brand Viva N Diva.

The Surat-based company, co-founded by Rupesh Jhavar and Manan Shah, opted for Laxmi to front their brand as part of their #FaceofCourage campaign that aims to raise awareness about acid attack survivors, and create more opportunities for them in the fashion industry. Going the distance, Viva N Diva has an in-your-face video on the home page of its website that shows Laxmi being made up and flaunting various outfits of the company, her smiling, scarred face in full focus.

It’s about opportunity, not charity

So, what prompted Jhavar and Shah to make such a bold statement? “We wanted to capture the story of women who were stolen of their physical beauty, and give them a platform to be themselves,” says Jhavar, adding, “This is our way of changing the outlook of society about beauty, as beauty is not about flawless skin, it is about the courage within.”

Besides, the company wanted to provide acid attack survivors a platform from which they could shed the tag of being a victim. It also wanted to instill a sense of acceptance in acid attack survivors, who otherwise shun society and lock themselves in the confines of their home. In the process, providing gainful employment to them, and enabling them to earn a livelihood in a dignified manner became part of the endeavour.

Jhavar and Manan are very clear, however, that their initiative should not be seen as some form of charity, or an allowance made for the disfigurement of acid attack survivors. The duo is not interested in making a politically correct statement. “This is not about charity, it’s about lending a helping hand and providing an avenue to people who have lost something through no fault of theirs,” says Jhavar. “These people require a morale boost, more than anything, and an opportunity to secure a respectable place in society. And we are happy that we have been able to kick-start a much-needed initiative,” he adds.

While acid attack survivors first walked the ramp at the HT Woman Awards function in Lucknow in 2014, the trend has not exactly caught on. Jhavar and Manan hope their initiative will make a difference, and other corporates will follow suit.

“We are not looking for recognition, but awareness. We want people to change their outlook towards fashion. We truly hope that others will rise to the occasion, and what we have started will become a chain reaction,” declares Jhavar.

Lakshmi – A life more meaningful 

Lakshmi’s personal struggle is the stuff fairy tales are made of. Well, sort of. The Delhi girl, who is also the winner of the 2014 Women of Courage award, has undergone several reconstructive surgeries to achieve a semblance of a normal appearance.

In 2005, when she was just 16, a man much older than her threw acid at her face and shoulders when she rejected his advances. Her skin literally melted and she needed a dozen painful surgeries. But Lakshmi refused to succumb to victimhood. Enraged at the ease with which acid was available at any neighbourhood store, even when there is a history of women being attacked with acid and suffering horrible consequences, she launched a campaign to get its sale regulated. In 2013, the Supreme Court backed her demand and ordered the government to regulate the sale of the substance. Even as she celebrated her legal victory, in 2014, she touched another high point — she was invited to the White House to meet Michelle Obama at a ceremony to honour women of courage.

And that was not all — she also found love. Yes, in a country where acid attack survivors hide their faces and resign to a life of loneliness, Lakshmi met journalist Alok Dixit, and love blossomed. In fact, she is now the proud mother of a baby girl. Both Dixit and Lakshmi continue to work for acid attack survivors through their campaign, “Stop Acid Attacks”.

Even as Lakshmi’s life has turned a happy corner, the fate of acid attack survivors continues to be a matter of great concern. There is a desperate need for more corporates, educational institutions, public sector organizations, and the like, to come together and provide hope and succour to this segment of society that could, otherwise, easily sink into despair.