No Handicap Dancers

  • Meenu Thakur Sankalp
  • India
  • Jun 12, 2015

One often hears cliched responses from people who shy away from dancing: ‘I can’t dance, I have two left feet,’ is the most common refrain. Fortunate are those that have their two feet, never mind if those feet don’t ‘move’ to the beats of music. Two women who wished to just dance were not that fortunate. One lost her right foot, the other her left, in separate gruesome accidents. Sudha Chandran, the famous Indian dancer-actress, lost her right foor in a road accident in 1981; Adrianne Haslet-Davis of the US lost her left foot in the Boston Marathon bomb blast in 2013. Yet neither lost hope. They went back to their first love - dancing. 

Sudha Chandran is the stuff that legends are made of. A trained Bharatanatyam dancer, Sudha was a Tamilian girl who was brought up in Bombay. During an ill-fated trip to Tiruchi in 1981, the bus in which Sudha was travelling collided head-on with a truck and Sudha’s legs got trapped in mangled metal. While a local doctor did plaster her right leg, it unfortunately developed gangrene…and had to be amputated. It seemed then that Sudha was destined to be confined to a wheelchair. But this gritty and gutsy lady was determined to challenge the seemingly insurmountable odds. She had read about Dr. P.K. Sethi of Jaipur, who had designed a prosthetic foot. Though she knew that it was not possible to dance with this foot, she went to meet Dr. Sethi, who was moved by her passion for dance. The good doctor modified the prosthetic foot and fitted it onto the stump below Sudha’s thighs. However, whenever she attempted to dance, her thighs would start bleeding. Dr. Sethi patiently made several modifications to the foot. Finally, their resilience bore fruit. Sudha became ‘comfortable’ while dancing with the prosthetic limb. Her first opportunity to again perform on stage came through the South India Welfare Society, in 1984 - three years after the fateful accident. As she danced that day, to thunderous applause, the entire country took notice. The media had of course been covering and lauding her tenacity and passion. A famous Telugu film producer offered her a film based on her own life, titled ‘Mayuri’ – for which she won the Special Category National Award for her acting. This film was also made in Hindi and Tamil. Sudha became an inspiration for many of the ‘disabled’ – especially amputees. While she continued to act in lead roles in South Indian movies and did supporting roles in Hindi films as well, her biggest success came in television serials in Tamil and Hindi. Sudha Chandran became one of the most known faces of Indian Television.

On April 15, 2013, a pressure cooker bomb, reportedly planted by two Chechnyans - the Tsarnaev Brothers, exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and injuring 264 others. Among the seriously injured were Adrianne Haslet-Davis and her husband (an officer in the Services). Adrianne, a dance instructor and a professional ballroom dancer, lost a part of her left leg. She felt devastated. For days she dreamt of being attacked by someone. Whenever she ventured out to the street she believed that another bomb would explode near her. However, despite this mental trauma, Adrianne believed that she could dance again, that too on stage. While the fitting of a prosthetic limb was a ‘solution’, she knew that it would not really make her dance - it was only intended to help a person walk. When Adrianne was being interviewed on a popular TV channel, Hugh Herr, a Biomechatronics professor at MIT, was moved by her courage. Hugh was a double amputee himself, having lost both of his legs in a climbing accident many years ago. Hugh had succeeded in creating a computer-controlled prosthetic foot. He designed a special bionic ankle for Adrianne. After intense therapy, and enduring extreme discomfort and pain, Adrianne  was able to dance again. In 2014, just a year after the gruesome attack, she was back on stage. Adrianne performed to a packed house, and under intense media glare, with her partner, Christian Lightner. America applauded this exceptional dancer, who showed that she could dance – that too, flawlessly - with just one foot. Adrianne continues to perform, and also teaches. She has also become a symbol in the fight against terrorism.

The stories of Sudha Chandran and Adrianne Haslet-Davis are inspiring examples of deep passion combined with exemplary determination and courage. These two remarkable dancers have shown that dance (or any performing art) is not only about talent, hard work and practice, but also about the resilience to fight against all odds. They have proven that we are handicapped only by our minds. Take a bow, ladies! 

The writer is a renowned Kuchipudi danseuse and choreographer



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