Remembering Sheetal Amte-Karajgi: Celebrating an Indian Heroine

Today would be have been the 40th birthday of my dear friend, Sheetal Amte-Karajgi. However, Sheetal tragically died by suicide on 30th November. I am heartbroken at the loss of one of the most beautiful souls I have the honour of calling my family. Sheetal leaves behind a herculean legacy. She was at the helm of one of the most iconic institutions in India, The Maharogi Sewa Samiti — home to Anandwan — one of the first ‘Smart Villages’ in the world. The organization has been a pioneer in transforming the lives of 2.7 million people since it was founded by Sheetal’s Grandfather, Baba Amte in 1949. Gandhi famously called his protege, Baba Amte, “The Conqueror of Fear”.

Sheetal was born into a deep legacy and stepped into these giant shoes with gusto. She was behind much of the brilliant transformation and modernization of the Anandwan community. Sheetal was the keeper of a great vision. She saw Anandwan as a canvas for the creation of the Smart Village of the future. A rural community built on a foundation of love, empowerment and social justice. Sheetal spread the example of Anandwan to the World Economic Forum gatherings, the TEDx stage, Harvard Kennedy School and the UN to name a few. Sheetal was a much-loved member of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders.

In short, I believe Sheetal should be celebrated as an Indian heroine. She worked tirelessly her entire life bringing dignity to the lives of the disadvantaged. It is a tragic irony that she felt she lost her dignity and chose to leave our world. On August 1st she wrote this to me after what appears to be a politically motivated attack in the Loksatta newspaper: “Globally people are calling me names. This is virtual rape on me. Complete character assassination.” This is an example of the horrors this heroine needed to withstand. In fact, I recorded this video following this conversation on August 1st to share my support for Sheetal — it is an eerie warning for what was coming. Suicide remains a great stigma in India as in many places around the world. I believe it is time for us to rethink the stigma of suicide in a culture that still is out of balance with strong female leaders.

https://youtu.be/W5JmZMER9r0

It appears that Sheetal felt bullied into a corner. The narrative in the media completely missed the point in my opinion. News of Sheetal’s suicide reached the BBC, the Indian Express, the Hindu and beyond. The focus of the media was on suicide in the much famed Amte family rather than on the impact of her life. Sheetal is among the too many women for generations who felt so hopeless at the weight of masculine dominance that they chose to take their own life. Sheetal’s suicide is a societal wake-up call. There remains a culture of the toxic masculinity that continues to oppress women in India and beyond. The systematic sexism experienced by women in India and throughout the world must end now.

Should you be inspired by Sheetal’s legacy I invite you to contribute to a tribute fund in her honour. Donations will go towards continuing Sheetal’s passion to support female social entrepreneurs to tackle India’s deepest societal challenges framed around the Sustainable Development Goals. We wish to create scholarships for women leading localized societal transformation. I invite you to contribute through Take Heart Foundation here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/sheetaltribute.

For some context, my father, Count Arthur Tarnowski, met Sheetal’s Grandfather, Baba Amte, back in 1964. My father had contracted polio in 1958 and spent his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from his waist down. Despite his disability, between 1964–1967 he led a 94,000-mile expedition around the world to assess the situation of handicapped people. When in 1964 he met Sheetal’s grandfather he dedicated his lifetime fundraising through Take Heart Foundation to Baba Amte and his legacy. Sheetal’s birth home, Anandwan, became the place for my father to create an example for the world on the transformation and rehabilitation of handicapped people through vocational employment training. My father visited Baba and Anandwan 44 times between 1964 and 2011 and is now buried in a garden called Joie de Vivre next to Baba Amte and his wife Sadhana and now our beloved Sheetal. Baba used to call my father ‘his spoilt son’. Suffice to say the Amte’s and Tarnowski’s have had a kismet connection for 3 generations and I hope many more generations to come. I have been visiting Sheetal’s home, Anandwan and the MSS institution since I was 9 years old.

It was with this family context that I wanted to write this tribute for Sheetal. However, it is a challenging task given how much of a multidimensional being she was and how many places and people she left her mark. My best attempt is to highlight 10 archetypes that Sheetal embodied as I believe this is an inspiring way to shine a light on the beauty of her character.

  1. The Heroine

Sheetal’s life is symbolised in the myth of the Heroine’s Journey. Sheetal lays bare the need for healing of the wounding of the feminine that exists deep within our culture at large. Sheetal was an acupuncture spot into the heart of the trauma felt by so many women around the world.

2. The Social Entrepreneur

When I was 18 years old I took over the running of the foundation from my father and began my partnership with Sheetal to create various projects together. We created an IT and English Language School for blind and handicapped adolescents to receive much in demand IT literacy skills. We then created a large home for blind and handicapped girls to live whilst they were at Anandwan. These projects would not have been what they were without Sheetal’s absolute brilliance and vision.

Sheetal was both a social entrepreneur herself and passionately developed others to be rural social entrepreneurs. She would often participate in the training of what she lovingly called ‘differently abled’ people. She was so in touch with the lives of the handicapped, leprosy patients, farmers suffering from climate change and the voice of the natural world. Sheetal served as an advisor to so many impact organizations such as the IdeaGist Blockchain Incubator, run on the world’s largest virtual incubation platform for people thinking of disruptive solutions to real-world problems using blockchain technology.

3. The Great Ancestor

Sheetal is the granddaughter of Baba Amte and the mother of Sharvil Amte-Karaji, and wife of Gautam Karaji. I pray that Sharvil will grow up to be proud of the life his mother lived. In my eyes, she will always have lived as a great ancestor yet it breaks all of our hearts to know that young Sharvil will grow up without his mother. I believe it is important for Sheetal to be remembered with the dignity by which she lived her life.

Back in 2018, my sister, Moya Caddy, interviewed Sheetal for Super Mums of India and Sheetal shared her family principles:

  • One should always take efforts to articulate a family mission statement with all the members and revisit it every year.
  • One should always explore the truth, speak the truth, be honest and help others speak the truth.
  • Never tolerate injustice. Make conscious efforts to raise your voice against it.
  • It’s great to be beautiful, but it’s more beautiful to be great in thoughts, actions and spirit.
  • It pays to be compassionate, respectful and diligent in everything — Work, Family and Society.

4. The Young Global Leader

Sheetal and I were both selected by World Economic Forum as ‘Young Global Leaders’. The World Economic Forum bestows this honour each year to recognize the distinguished leaders under the age of 40, nominated from around the world. This is in recognition of a person’s record of professional accomplishments and potential to contribute to solving the world’s pressing issues. Sheetal contributed regularly as a member of World Economic Forum Expert Network on Humanitarian Response. She attended various World Economic Forum events around the world representing Anandwan and a message of hope and love.

5. The Educator

Sheetal was a big advocate for the power of education to transform lives. Everything she did was an opportunity to teach others or learn herself. She imbued the Anandwan with a culture of learning. She was also an Academy Member and Jury of the $1 million ‘Global Teacher Prize’ that is given to teachers across the world for excellence in their profession. Sheetal oversaw the development at Anandwan of numerous educational facilities including boarding schools for seeing- and hearing-impaired students, a vocational training program for unemployed youths and two colleges.

6. The Environmentalist

Sheetal had a dream to plant 1 million trees in Anandwan and the MSS. She was a force defender of our shared mother. She had so many different projects that improved the environmental efficiency of Anandwan. Often inspired by the ingenuity of her father, Vikas, there was an approach that nothing would be wasted and everything possible would be recycled. Sheetal’s model of dense plantation of native trees, adopted for Indian conditions from ‘Miyawaki method of afforestation’, was accepted by the Government of Maharashtra and renamed after her contribution to the environment as ‘Anandwan Dense Forest Model’.

7. The Caregiver

Sheetal was a medical doctor. When Covid19 Pandemic spread Sheetal sprang into action with awareness campaigns, produced and distributed 47,000 masks, feeding 200 migrant works and 125 tribal families. She created and trained 149 volunteers on a Corona Warrior Team. This is just an example of the non-stop life of service that Sheetal lived. This was widely recognized including an award grant for setting up ‘Centre of Excellence for Medical Leadership, ethics and Motivation’ at Anandwan by Lancet Commission on Global Surgery. Through that, she founded ‘Mashaal’ and ‘Chirag’, two exclusive leadership training programs for motivating medical professionals across India. Sheetal was an Advisor to Express Public Health Awards and the Indian Institute of Public Health and a member of Jury of Express Healthcare Awards. Sheetal was dedicated to community empowerment — She created a centre called ‘Nijbal’ for offering one-stop services to people with disabilities in India that offers services from prevention of disability to primary, secondary and tertiary education, vocational training and employment support, various types of counselling, sports and medical and physical rehabilitation services

8. The Artist

Sheetal loved to paint and teach painting. She had great talent and expressed her emotions through her work. Sheetal was also an accomplished photographer with a few international publications and helps NGOs document their work through photographs. She won the Lancet Highlights Photography Competition in 2016. You can view some of her artwork here: http://www.sheetalamtekarajgi.com/anandwan

9. The Storyteller

In Sheetal’s words she lived a life “full of purpose, not affluence; contentment, not greed; compassion, not just passion; peace, not pace.” She said in her 2017 TEDx talk: “What is the future? The future is not a place. It is something that we all create together with a shared dream… But the world is suffering from an epidemic of mental leprosy — where we see injustice and suffering and do nothing about it.” Sheetal’s life is an example of compassion in action.

10. The Light Warrior

Following in her grandfather’s footsteps, Sheetal always spoke truth to power. She was fearless, determined and dedicated. She demonstrated this in her lifelong selfless service to the transformation of the lives of the less fortunate. Sheetal was a leader and visionary of the way the world could and should be. She spoke of applying the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals at the community level using Anandwan as the Smart Village canvas.

My deepest condolences and love go to Sheetal’s family, the Anandwan and MSS communities and all those who were inspired by her life of action. Our world tragically lost a bright light on 30th November. But today, on what would have been Sheetal’s 40th birthday, we salute a life well-lived.

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Lucian Tarnowski

Lucian Tarnowski

Founding Curator of Civana — A global community working together on humanity’s greatest challenges

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