Mahantesh GK is the man behind Samarthanam. In 1997, with Rs. 45,000 that he received as an M.Phil scholarship, he along with another visually impaired friend co-founded the organization. Himself visually-impaired, his motivation to set up the organization clearly steps from his own personal story. “I was born in the farming village of Sisiri in Belgaum district,” he says. “A few months before I was born, my 30-member joint family started decorating the house, sculpting wooden birds and clay toys and painting clay lamps in preparation for my birth. As I was the first child of my generation, lots of hopes were pinned on me.”
But at the age of two, his family started noticing that their son couldn’t see. It was because of a bout of typhoid that his eyesight was failing; but the village doctors were unable to diagnose the same. A series of treatments ensued, which included a ‘fire treatment’ where his forehead was seared with hot iron rods in an attempt to stimulate his optical nerve. But everything proved unsuccessful. The scars around his eyes are still visible.
He recalls the first setback he faced. He was denied admission to the village school. For four years, he was only allowed to sit on the last bench and listen to what was being taught. But surprisingly, that turned out to be enough. “I started solving mathematics orally. By the time I was six, I could recite tables up to 250,” he says. He picked up English (and by default an obsession for cricket too) in a similar manner – by listening to cricket commentary over the radio. He was clearly a gifted child.
His parents soon moved him to a school for the disabled in Bangalore. Here, Mahantesh, then 14, started playing cricket and persuaded the school to hire a coach. He went on to play for and eventually captain the Indian cricket team for the blind and toured England in 1998. He later co-founded the National Cricket Board for the Blind, which is now helping organise an international T20 cricket tournament.
His good fortune of have access to special facilities when growing up certainly prevented his disability from handicapping him. But it also sub-consciously sowed the seeds of his desire to set up Samarthanam. “All blind students faced the same problem but I had access to the solutions,” he says.
While the organization today services 100,000 people, it’s been a long and hard journey to get this far. Infact, he only started this journey in 1997. Prior to that, he was a lecturer at a Bangalore college, after completing his post-graduation and MPhil in English literature. Though happy as a lecturer, his secret desire of empowering the visually-impaired remained. But since both time and money stood in the way, he let that feeling lay low. Till he acquired a cooking gas distribution agency. That’s when he quit his lecturer’s job and launched his dream project. All profits that the gas agency made were diverted to run Samarthanam. Funding today is has of course increased and diversified.
Samarthanam’s initial aim was to provide higher education for visually challenged students. As most of the blind schools at that time had classes till the 10+2 level, but after that there were very few opportunities. So classes for higher education were started to broaden job opportunities for the visually-impaired. With time, call center training, computer education, cricket coaching, and dance training for students was introduced too. As Mr. Mahantesh says, “We believe in creating opportunities.”
There’s no stopping Mahantesh and his team, who work hard every day to create more and more opportunities. Samarthanam is the Kannada word for ‘capable’ and this organization truly lives up to its name!