Diligent? Honest? She may have a medal for you

Inger Margrethe Larsen acknowledges the courage, selflessness, tough decisions and even the sense of humour that ordinary people demonstrate during the struggles of daily life 

Rarely does one think of medals outside the domain of sports and athletics or the bravery awards given to men and women in services. “Are these the only people who deserve medals?” asks Inger Margrethe Larsen. “What about all other mortals – common people like you and me? Do we not have our own private battles to fight every day? Do we not show acts of bravery and courage in the face of mishaps and calamities? Does not that old lady sitting on a bitter cold, winter day selling vegetables and fruits deserve the medal? Or that bus driver who travels us from place to place day after day – is he less worthy of having a medal? Or that teacher in the primary school tutoring young ones with dedication and diligence?”

The multi-faceted artist from Denmark, who was in Bengaluru recently, contends that ordinary men and women too need to be recognised for their contribution to society too. And so the artist, sculptor and jewellery-maker goes about recognising and rewarding common folk she encounters on the street with medals that she makes. Laced with wit, insight, curiosity and cheerfulness, Larsen’s medal project brings to light some aspects of the unique and often exceptional lives of her everyday heroes. She has met, interviewed, decorated and photographed a number of people from India, Denmark, the UK and other nations.

Fifty-five-year-old Anjalachi has been selling fish for the last two decades. She told Larsen, “I have never ever cheated my customers by selling stale fish even if it has caused me losses. Out of my single income, I take care of the whole family of six people.”

Larsen, who arrived in India in November to attend an art camp in Jaipur, has travelled the length and breadth of the country in the last few months. Accompanied by local friends or acquaintances, she has managed to communicate with people she encounters along the way. The one question she does ask potential heroes is this: ‘What makes you deserve the medal?’ The responses are revealing in themselves: some serious, some poignant, others humourous and a few, simply ludicrous.

In India, a photographer in his mid-50s told her how he had to fight hunters and government authorities in order to create a bird sanctuary which is today home to no less than 250 species of migratory and resident birds. A security guard in Pondicherry said he is happy that his sacrifices helped bring up his brothers and their children but rues that no one takes care of him today. A teenager from Italy ruminated on his decision to skip college for the sheer love of travel, which brought him to India. An autorickshaw driver said he teaches self-defence techniques to children during his spare time.

Kannan, a 60-year-old autorickshaw driver, told Larsen he teaches kids an Indian game called Surulu, which is about self-defence. “I do not want this game to vanish, so I teach children voluntarily and without charging any fees.”

Elsewhere, Larsen, who designs medals for wall decorations and personal embellishment, has met other ’ordinary men and women’ who have set up schools for slum children or art centres to promote artistic culture in rural areas; an American woman, now in her late 60s, who offered her “time and energy to children at a psychiatric hospital in New York after 9/11”; a man who said he deserved the medal for ‘saving two rats from human traps ’ because all life is precious; a Professor from the UK who said she merits the honour “because all women deserve medals for surviving in a male dominated world”; a now 57-year-old who is an artist made an “incredibly hard decision at the age of 36 to leave the collapsed Soviet Union with family and friends to build a future for my two daughters. Through all the hardship of family losses, and adjustments in a new culture, I have still remained a kind and loving human being”; And a man called Ali, from Turkey, who said he wanted the medal because “the medal looks good on me”.

Palanivel is a 30-year-old coconut seller. “I am a physically-challenged person since childhood as my two legs do not function fully. Despite my disability, I sell coconuts and repair bikes for my daily living,” he told Larsen. 

Incidentally, Larsen’s medals are based on themes that reflect upon various facets of life. So there’s the Medal for House and Home, Medal for a Tribute to Life, Medal for a Sense of Humour, Medal for Knowledge and Learning, Medal for Gastronomy, Medal for Nature; Medal for Travelling, Medal for Courage and Strength, Medal for Good Health, Medal for Joy, Medal for Love and Medal for Everyday Hero. Her medals come in different shapes, sizes and materials such as fabric, acrylic and even plastic. “Why do medals always have to be metallic and ranked in terms of gold, silver and bronze?” says the graduate from the Royal College of Art, London.

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