UTTAR PRADESH: She was confined to bed for 17 years with near-total paralysis caused by severe spine fracture after being pushed down the third floor of a building by her husband and in-laws on February 3, 1997. Doctors had given up hope that she would ever be able to stand on her feet.
Not only did she prove them wrong by walking again, she went on to set two enviable records in painting, besides motivating girls of nondescript villages to turn into international champion Taekwondo players. Today, Punam Rai, 47, is a role model for painters, Taekwondo players and dancers across Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.
Originally from Vaishali district in Bihar, her family shifted to Varanasi in 1983 after her engineer-father Bindeshwar Rai was posted to the temple city. A year after graduating in Painting from the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), she was married to a budding engineer (later found to be just an intermediate pass) in Patna.
“I was my parents and brothers’ princess, who was turned into a maidservant by a dowry greedy husband and in-laws. I was tortured daily for dowry, despite my father having fulfilled all their demands. After I gave birth to Priya in November 1997, I was subjected to unimaginable torture by husband and in-laws, particularly out of anger that I had delivered a girl child,” recounted Punam.
Then the fateful incident took place. “All doctors were of the same opinion that I would never walk again, and at the most be able to manoeuvre a wheelchair. I spent 17 long years in the bed, like a living dead with my legs and hands hardly functional. But my zidd (determination) to prove the doctors wrong and make my father proud just like my brothers, helped me finally stand on my own with artificial support in 2014,” said Punam.
The reactivation of Punam’s life, however, happened after father’s death in 2014. “She wanted to make our father proud, and so started the BR Foundation in his memory in Varanasi, beginning with her return to the world of colours (painting),” said her elder brother and prime support, Naresh Rai.
Her quest to working on her own to shape the lives of others started with her own daughter Priya, nieces Sneha and Nivekhsha and nephews Nikhil and Navish, but later started encompassing other kids from all parts of Varanasi, particularly the rural areas. She began by teaching painting to boys and girls and organised their exhibitions. While Punam returned to the world of colours through her BR Foundation after 2014, her real connectivity with outside people and Varanasi as a whole began with Subah-e-Banaras, an every morning collective effort of the ancient city at Assi Ghat.
“It was here that I connected with all; from poor children wishing to become painters to housewives cherishing to plunge into a riot of colours to the big names of the art, including Prof S Pranam Singh and Sunil Vishwakarma,” said Punam.
Her journey of inspiring to change lives of others wasn’t just confined to painting through exhibitions in various cities of India. It spread its wings into taekwondo, with the help of national players Satya Vardhan Singh, Saurabh Singh and Kiran.
“Since 2016, we have trained over 3,000 girls, boys and women in Taekwondo. From them, 20 are state and national level players, while three girls — Diksha Patel, Yashwini Singh and Sadhna, all from nondescript villages in Varanasi’s Babatpur area — won two gold and a bronze a few months ago at an international tourney in Australia,” said Satya Vardhan Singh, Secretary of Varanasi Taekwondo Association.
In 2017, Punam spent 17 days painting 648 faces (of a girl’s journey from birth to death) on a single canvas. “The ‘Phases of Faces,’ is motivated by PM Modi’s mission of Beti Bachao Beti Padhao. The day I complete it, I will gift it to the PM,” said Punam, who had met the PM in February 2019 and had gifted him his portrait created by her. “Punam didi is our prime inspiration to train. Seeing her grit and determination has made countless working women learn the art of self-defence,” said Satya Singh.
Meeting with PM Narendra Modi
On February 28, 2019, Punam Rai had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and gifted him his portrait created by her. He appreciated her gesture and conveyed his best wishes via a letter.