When it was time for Sunil and Shubha Jangam to enrol their daughter Urvi, who was born without sight, into school, they took her to a school for the blind. At the time, they’d thought Urvi’s blindness would be a disability, but as it turned out, there would be no holding Urvi back. After a stellar academic career, last week, Urvi, 31, became the first blind female student in India to be awarded a PhD in German studies.
Even as a child, Urvi, who chose not to learn Braille, was determined to not be treated differently. “Our first thought was to enroll her in a school for the blind,” said Urvi’s father, businessman Sunil Jangam, “but the principal there insisted that she was smart enough to be enrolled in a regular school. That was the first boost of confidence we needed and since then, we haven’t looked back.”
Urvi weathered initial hiccups at Dadar’s Indian Education Society (IES), but was soon excelling in her studies. She scored 85% in her class 10 exams and was the topper in the Mumbai division for the disabled category, but her mother Shubha remembers Urvi being disappointed with her results. “She wanted admissions on the basis of merit in the open category, not under the disabled category. Her will to not be treated any different encourages people to forget her disability altogether,” said Shubha.
Rather than Braille, Urvi has relied on technology to be her aid. “While on one hand I would record whatever was taught in class, my mother would make audio recordings of all my textbooks and keep the cassettes ready for me to study. This went on till I cleared my Bachelors in Arts (BA) from Patkar Varde College ,” she said.
When she was 16, Urvi fell in love with the German language. In addition to her BA in English literature and history, Urvi started learning German at Max Mueller Bhavan, which involved travelling from her residence in Goregaon to Kala Ghoda, by train. While her teacher at Max Mueller Bhavan motivated Urvi to study the language further, there were others who sought to discourage her. At Pune’s Fergusson College, where Urvi completed her junior college, the teacher wasn’t supportive. “My German teacher told me in front of my batch mates that I should have chosen Hindi or Marathi as second language, as that would have been easy to pass. Without knowing my ability, she had decided that I can only pass a subject and never excel in it. I took it up as a challenge to prove her wrong,” Urvi said.
German posed significant obstacles for Urvi. For example, while the computer’s Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program could understand English easily, German words were formed differently . “I had to first scan each and every page of a book, then convert it to a Word file, edit the words to avoid errors and then convert it on OCR. It has taken me six-nine hours on one book sometimes,” she said.
After graduation, Urvi pursued her Masters in Arts in German Studies from the University of Mumbai, which was when she got the idea for her PhD research paper. “It is easily assumed that visually-challenged people don’t understand beauty just because they can’t see something,” she said. “I realised I need to delve into scientific reasoning to break such stereotypes.”
Urvi completed her PhD in five years, under the guidance of Dr Vibha Surana, head of the German Department at MU. During this time, she also got a scholarship to do PhD and pursue research at Gottingen University under the German Academic Exchange Service (known as DAAD).“Guiding a student unable to see was a daunting task and the department facilitated her studies. But it has been her own diligence and perseverance that drove the research,” said Surana.
Inspired by the Indian philosophy of navarasa, Urvi developed a concept that she has named the “adrishya rasa” or “non-visual aesthetic pleasure”. Last week, she presented her research paper titled ‘Aesthetics of the Non-Visual’ and became the first blind female student in the country to have a PhD in German Studies. The German Department of the University of Mumbai confirmed this. This weekend, she will deliver a lecture in Bengaluru.
In the future, Urvi hopes to take her research into how the visually-challenged and blind perceive beauty beyond the world of academics. “My research shows how there’s very little, or no literature on this topic and clearly, we need more work on it,” said Urvi.