Sudha’s Dance to Fame
That’s why we have every reason to celebrate Sudha Chandran for doing what is deemed to be impossible—dancing with one leg. Technically, Sudha is not missing a leg as she uses a prosthetic limb to optimize dance movements. For non-Indians, Sudha’s success story might not be that striking. We have to understand a bit of Indian culture to give Sudha due appreciation for what she has achieved as a professional dancer.
Sudha does not dance an ordinary dance. She is a Bharatanatyam professional dancer. According to Natya Shastra, there are some tough pre-requisites to becoming a Bharatanatyam professional dancer, with most of them innate in nature:
"Women who have beautiful limbs, are conversant with the sixty-four arts and crafts, are clever, courteous in behaviour, free from female diseases, always bold, free from indolence, inured to hard work, capable of practising various arts and crafts, skilled in dancing and songs, who excel by their beauty, youthfulness, brilliance and other qualities all other women standing by, are known as female dancers."
Taking that definition of a Bharatanatyam dancer, could it be that dancers of such discipline are born rather than made? As far as Sudha Chandran is concerned, yes she is definitely born to be a Bharatanatyam dancer. If not, how else could she still dance after losing a leg in a freak accident? If she only relies on her physical attributes in order to dance, then she would have given up on dancing after the May 1981 car mishap. With only one leg, how else will she be able to pull off complicated stunts Bharatanatyam dance requires?
But Sudha is as extraordinary as the dance she dances. She kept dancing even as an amputee because she lives to be a Bharatanatyam dancer. It’s not just a career, dancing is her life. Her passion for her craft is priceless. Sudha exhibited enormous amount of guts for a teenager who was just starting to realize her dreams of becoming a professional Bharatanatyam dancer. She was only 16 when the accident happened.
How could a teenager who happened to have a very promising talent get through the fact that in order to live, she had to have her leg amputated? They might as well kill her. To keep living, she had to give up her dreams. How sick could that get? For a girl whose calling is to dance, losing a leg was like losing everything.
That could have been the end of Sudha’s legacy if she were the type who gives up easily. She mustered the courage to move on and take that leap of faith, literally. She used what remained of her and compensated for her lack of a vital limb with amazing determination. Her ‘Jaipur foot’ may not ever come close to that which she had lost but it’s better than missing a leg for the rest of her life. What matters most now is that she has kept on dancing. With her renewed vigor, she inspires people to overcome the worst by becoming the best in what they have chosen to do regardless of their circumstance.
What kind of bravery does this woman possess to dare say:
"I view the accident as a blessing because without it I would be one amongst the million women who dance. But dancing with the Jaipur foot makes me one of a kind. We come in this life with a purpose. I have been a ray of inspiration to not only the disabled but also the able. I am a real life heroine."
Only people with great passion can view bitter experiences that way. Let’s get to know Sudha better and see if we, without any body part missing, could achieve half of what she was able to do.
Sudha’s Biography Before the Accident
Sudha Chandran is the only child of K.D. and Thangam Chandran. She belonged to a middle class Tamil family. Tami is the language spoken by majority of people living in the northern part of India. Her father, K.D. used to work for the United States Information Agency based in Mumbai. He served in that American-based institute as a Library Director for 50 years.
The couple became parents to a bouncing baby girl who they named Sudha on 21 September 1964. Sudha was a very energetic baby. In India where women are still treated as second class citizens, Sudha’s parents never made a big deal out of her gender. If anything, Sudha grew up pampered and well-loved. Thangam, Sudha’s mother, was a musician. Both she and her husband D.K. had a passion for art, exposing Sudha to poetry and music at an early age.
When Sudha was three years old, Thangam noticed that her daughter could dance. Sudha entertained family members by dancing. Seeing their toddler dance made Thangam and D.K utterly proud. Taking her cue from her daughter’s instinctive ability to dance, Thangam encouraged Sudha to cultivate her dancing prowess. D.K. in turn showed his full support by enrolling his then five-year-old girl to one of the most prestigious dance schools in India—the Kala Sadan.
As the family hailed from Mumbai, Kala Sadan was the most logical choice for both Thangam and D.K. who only wanted the best for their little Sudha. The problem was, K.S. Ramaswamy Bhagavatar, Kala Sadan’s principal would not admit a five-year-old in their school. They were anything but daycare. His adamant refusal did not do anything to diminish a doting father’s resolve to provide the best dance education for his daughter. He convinced, or maybe ‘begged’ is more appropriate, K.S. Ramaswamy Bhagavatar to see her daughter perform.
After the dance demo, K.S. Ramaswamy Bhagavatar did something that remained to be unprecedented up to this very moment—admit a five-year-old dance student. Regular kids her age would normally view dancing as play. Sudha was different. She practiced very hard. As mentioned above, Indian dances are not a piece of cake. To be as good as Sudha, one has to start very young and probably exert the same amount of effort she had as a dance student.
Even as Sudha got better because of continuous practice, she never became complacent, not even once. Her determination astonished the people around her. It’s the kind of diligence that is rarely seen in children her age. Dancing, as it turned out for Sudha, became an expression of herself. As an accomplished dancer now, she would often tell the press how grateful she is to her parents for instilling in her the love of dancing.
She could not thank her parents enough for accurately tapping the talent that eventually catapulted her to fame. Learning from her experience, she now advocates close parental guidance in order to turn a child’s hobby into a talent, talent into passion. Her success as a dancer attests to the importance of parents’ involvement in the formative years of children.
While attending Kala Sadan, Sudha was also a regular student at St. Joseph’s Convent. In fact, in regular school, Sudha was also praised for her talent in dancing. She joined a dance competition held at St. Joseph’s Convent and went home with the first prize. That was her very first award for dancing.
Back at Kala Sadan, Sudha impressed her teachers not only with her rare talent but more so by her sheer dedication to further develop her dancing skills. At nine years old, she completed the Bharatanatyam course in Kala Sadan and performed her ‘arangetram’ to everybody’s amazement. Arangetram is like their ‘recital.’ A Bharatanatyam student would only get to perform his/her ‘arangetram’ upon successfully completing the whole course. Before Sudha even turned 10, she was already considered a legitimate Bharatanatyam performer.
That was just the beginning of her career. People saw so much potential in the young Sudha that they often let her entertain guests with her hypnotic dance performance at big events. Again, for non-Indian readers, being considered a great Bharatanatyam dancer is something to be proud of because it takes a lot of serious training to master the complex moves. With Bharatanatyam, every dance figure is calculated and depicts something meaningful. It’s a well-respected vocation, so to speak.
Apart from her talent in dancing, Sudha was growing into a very beautiful and bright lady. Everybody around her knew then that Sudha was destined only for success. At 16 years old, Sudha was already becoming a popular Bharatanatyam dancer across Mumbai. She has performed in 75 different events—quite a feat for a teenager who had studies to bother with.
Losing Her Leg in an Accident
However, the girl who held so much promise soon met an accident that would put every ounce of her resolve to the test. While the Chandran family was aboard a bus on their way home from a pilgrimage, their vehicle collided with a truck. It was midnight and every passenger on the bus was tired. Everybody, including Sudha, was drifting off to sleep. She was sitting two seats away from the driver. When the bus suddenly stopped, it took Sudha a good minute or two to realize that they got into an accident.
Sudha recalled the grim accident in one of her interviews saying that she suddenly found herself holding the driver of the bus as he “breathed his last on her lap.” The last thing the driver was able to say was that he was thirsty and he wanted a drink. Sudha groped in the dark, and while not being able to see anything, touched something wet and immediately gave the bus driver his last drink. There was chaos around her. She knew the driver on her lap was gone and amidst the cacophony of screams and cries, she heard one of the medics declare her mother dead.
It did not sound right to her. She wanted to get up but found out that her foot was stuck. Some of her co-passengers, who like her did not suffer serious injuries, helped her get on her feet. She did not feel any pain although she said, “Something felt wobbly.” She limped her way toward her mother who was declared dead on the spot. But to her and the other passengers’ amazement, they saw movement on Thangam’s chest. Sudha frantically told the medics that her mother was still alive and that she needed to be taken to the hospital fast.
The nearest hospital happened to be a government hospital. Her mother was rushed to the emergency room along with others who sustained deadly injuries. Sudha was also admitted but her condition was not as delicate as her mother’s. She only had a cut on her right leg and a fractured femur. The doctor, in a hurry to attend to other patients, put a plaster to cover the cut Sudha sustained from the accident.
It took two days for Sudha to realize that her parents were still alive. She was in shock and that accident left her shaken for 48 hours. Meanwhile, her wound was not getting any better. If anything, it became worse and begun to discolor. D.K. panicked. After a week of staying in that hospital, her father decided to take them out and seek medical help from another doctor, one who was more capable. The hospital initially refused to discharge them. They only granted them permission to leave after her father signed a waiver taking away any obligation from the hospital should anything happen to them afterwards.
Something did happen to Sudha. Her cut by then turned into a serious medical condition. It got infected and developed into gangrene. The moment another doctor looked into the covered wound, he knew that Sudha’s leg was beyond help. All he could say was, “What did they do?” That moment, Sudha knew something was terribly wrong.
She was admitted in the hospital and the next morning, a solemn Thangam entered her room. She couldn’t bring herself to break the bad news to her bedridden daughter. Thangam broke down to tears and D.K. had no choice but to tell her daughter the sad news—her leg had developed gangrene and they had to amputate it to save her life.
Sudha’s world crashed. She was speechless, too shocked for words. All her life, she only wanted one thing—to be a dancer. That was the thing she did best. Dancing is her life. And there she was lying on a hospital bed, trying to digest what her father just told her. The doctors need to remove her leg so that she wouldn’t die. What they did not know was she already died the moment she realized she won’t be able to dance anymore.
The infection was so severe that the doctors had to cut 7 and ½ inches below her knee. Just how do you console a teenager who was only then beginning to realize her dream of becoming a dancer, but because of some doctor’s negligence, lost her leg? How could one precious life be wasted by medical malpractice?
Life ended for Sudha. Sleep was almost impossible. There was just nothing left for her. No dreams to keep her motivated. No dance to express herself. The bubbly girl was gone. D.K. and Thangam’s dancer became a totally different person overnight. From a girl so full of joy and life, Sudha turned into a recluse.
It was doubly hard for Sudha’s parents to see their daughter succumb to grief and desolation. It was the darkest moment in Sudha’s life. She told viewers in an interview that she might be serving as an inspiration to many now, but if she would live again, she wants to skip that moment. It was very painful for her. How she got through that was something she credited to her strong faith.
Sudha went through the process of grieving and so were her parents. Although their neighbors and friends offered their sympathy, it did not ease the family’s burden. Just thinking that she would forever be a cripple was unbearable for Sudha. She thought about her parents and everything they did for her to ensure that she lived comfortably.
Her parents deserve something more than an invalid for a daughter. The future scared her. How long will her parents have to endure taking care of her? Who will take over their responsibility once they are gone? Those were just some questions that went through the mind of the 16-year-old Sudha.
D.K., in order to avoid bumping into acquaintances and friends, would go to the market only when it got dark. The Chandran’s once happy home became silent.
Drawing Inspiration from Helen Keller
Until one day, Sudha woke up, feeling tired of just lying around doing nothing. She decided to slowly pick up the pieces of her broken self and move on. Losing one leg did not kill her; so she thought of a way to resume her normal life. She would soon say that Helen Keller’s story helped in restoring her hope. The blind poet learned to read in spite of her disability. Not only that, Helen became one of the most popular poets in history. So Like Helen, Sudha decided to make something out of her second life. She must have been spared from death to do something significant. At first, she used wooden foot and clutches to help her walk. She went back to school and pursued her Bachelor of Arts degree in Mithibai College.
Sudha slowly recovered physically and emotionally. She was ready to embrace her new life. All that’s left of her was her dream and she is not giving up hope just because she lost a leg. Her father bought her a wheelchair thinking that it would make moving much more convenient for Sudha. The wheelchair was never used. Sudha preferred to walk even if it took a lot of effort to do so.
Friends helped Sudha bring her life back. They knew she was her old self again when she went out to watch a movie with them. That was the first recreational activity she did after losing a leg.
Sudha’s Jaipur Foot
Sudha’s new-found determination was impossible to depose. She kept researching and was always abreast with medical breakthroughs in prosthetics. Finally, after six months, her diligence bore fruit when she saw an article in a medical journal about the renowned Dr. Pramod Karan Sethi. The article featured a new invention called ‘Jaipur foot’ which Dr. Sethi, along with Ram Chandra Sharma, successfully developed. Basically, the ‘Jaipur foot’ is a wood and rubber prosthetic limb which was developed for farmer amputees to enable them to resume their agricultural vocation. Some of the things the ‘Jaipur foot’ would allow them to do are climb trees and work on their farms.
Dr. Sethi was then already a recognized surgeon in the realm of orthopedics having received the Ramon Magsaysay Award—the highest award vested by the Philippine government. The family went to see an exhibit of Dr. Sethi’s work in Mumbai. Seeing the ‘Jaipur foot’ encased in glass, Sudha felt that it was the answer to her prayers.
Sudha wrote Dr. Sethi explaining her condition and her zeal to walk again. She was euphoric when she received a reply in a couple of days’ time. The family promptly arranged a consultation with Dr. Sethi in Jaipur.
Seeing Sudha’s hopeful face, Dr. Sethi could not allow such a fresh soul to wallow in defeat just because she won’t be able to do what she wanted to do again. So when Sudha asked Dr. Sethi if there was a possibility that she could go back to dancing using the ‘Jaipur foot,’ the Doctor enthusiastically reassured her that it could be done.
The Doctor went to work and designed Sudha her ‘Jaipur foot’. It was not an easy thing to do even for an expert like Dr. Sethi. Sudha is a dancer and he designed the ‘Jaipur foot’ largely for the use of injured men in the military service or farmers who labored in the fields. In short, the ‘Jaipur foot’ is for anything but dancing. Nevertheless, Sudha was willing to do her part by undergoing therapies and getting used to wearing her ‘Jaipur foot.’ When she finally got her prosthetic limb, Sudha promptly began dancing. The girl had not danced for months and wearing a ‘Jaipur foot’ was something that needed getting used to.
Sudha often bled due to the friction of the ‘Jaipur foot’ against her skin. Practice after practice resulted in more and more wounds and aching limbs. But Sudha would not give up. She was more than happy to be able to do something she almost gave up doing after she lost her leg. Now that she found a way to pursue her dancing career, she would do everything to overcome the ‘Jaipur foot’ side effects.
Her parents were alarmed though and so they arranged another meeting with Dr. Sethi. After closely studying Bharatanatyam movements, he furnished a ‘Jaipur foot’ that would allow Sudha to dance without hurting herself or getting restricted by her prosthetics. Sudha tried on her new ‘Jaipur foot.’ Unlike the old one, her customized ‘Jaipur foot’ was easier to use, albeit the initial pain she felt dancing with it.
The pain was not mainly due to the new 'Jaipur foot’ discomfort but was brought about by her still fresh wounds which she got from rigidly practicing using her old prosthetics. In spite of the pain, Sudha remained poker-faced all throughout the fitting to appease her parents.
Sudha finally got her ‘leg’ back, thanks to the likes of Dr. Sethi who was the exact opposite of the doctor who treated her at the government hospital. Sudha could not wait to perform on stage again. Every day, Sudha rehearsed and tried to recall the Bharatanatyam movements. D.K and Thangam were just so happy to see their daughter back to her old happy and vibrant self.
Two years after the accident, Sudha felt that she was ready to perform on stage again. Her parents supported her by arranging an event where only their closest family friends and relatives would be invited. Thinking that it would just be a private family affair, Sudha went along her parents’ plan. Preeti, a fellow dancer, was invited to dance with her during the event.
Sudha Dances with a Jaipur Foot
On the 28 January 1984, Sudha was nervously pacing back and forth at the backstage of the South India Welfare Society hall. She was having jitters. The curtain finally opened and Sudha was stunned to see around a thousand spectators all standing and giving her a big round of applause.
Apparently, D.K and Thangam did not arrange for a private party but a big and grand victory bash for their one and only daughter who everybody thought would not be able to walk again, let alone dance. Sudha was dumbfounded. Then the music started, and before she knew it, she was dancing. She did not just dance. Sudha performed!
Three hours went by and Sudha found herself being applauded again not because she was a good dancer but because she was a great inspiration. Seeing her dance was like seeing a dream come true. Sudha whom they thought would be a cripple all the days of her life just enthralled them with her performance proving that she was the same graceful Bharatanatyam dancer they knew before.
Sudha confessed that she was so nervous that time that she almost went down the stage and backed out. She thought the better of it and decided to face the challenge. In doing so, she has proven that she still had a career in dancing. It was more than a show for Sudha. It was the rebirth of a star. She’s back with a ‘Jaipur foot.’
Dr. Sethi was there. Teary-eyed, he congratulated his patient and asked her, “How did you do it?” Sudha was silent for a moment thinking she did not hear her doctor right. She asked, “Do what?” To which he replied, “Dance.” Sudha was taken aback. The doctor who reassured her that she could dance again using a ‘Jaipur foot’ was asking her how she did it? Surely, she must be missing something. Dr. Sethi, with a smile on his face, let her in on a secret: “When I saw your innocent face asking me if you could still dance, I couldn’t bring myself to say no. So I said, sure you can.”
Appearing in Mayuri
Another chapter began in Sudha’s life. Gone was the depressed Sudha. What people saw after that was a strong Bharatanatyam dancer who became an inspiration to every hopeless person struck by tragedy.
Newswtime and Eanader covered her success story, making her an instant celebrity. A producer was moved by her courage, and he decided to make her life into a film. Ramoji Rao convinced Sudha to star in a movie that was inspired by her own story. She did not readily say yes, thinking that she couldn’t act. After much convincing, she has agreed to tell the world her story by playing her character in the movie, “Mayuri.”
It was successful in many ways. “Mayuri” became an inspiration to all who watched it as they became witness to Sudha’s struggle to get her life back again. The film also earned acclaim from critics and award-giving bodies. Sudha received a Special Jury Award for her acting performance. That’s quite an achievement for someone who believed she could not act. “Mayuri” also opened the doors of another career for Sudha. Everybody was convinced, including her, that she can be an actress.
More Movies and TV Programs
After ‘Mayuri’ a Hindi version was produced, called “Naacha Mayuri.” Sudha remained to play the lead role. It gave Sudha a solid experience in acting which she later on did full time.
She became a national sensation. People supported her movies and, eventually, her TV series. Acting and dancing became Sudha’s main profession despite completing a Master’s degree in Economics. She also relieved her parents of the responsibility of taking care of her now that she’s married and has a husband who would happily do that (not that she needs being taken care of). Ravikumar Dang and Sudha were married in 1995. Her husband is also into filmmaking. Among their many other projects, the couple is most busy running the Sudha Chandran Academy of Dance.
Contrary to what she believed in, she did not lose her career when she lost her leg. As bizarre as it sounds, it was the ‘Jaipur foot’ that completed her celebrity look.
Just like Stephen Hawking, Beethoven, and Marla Runyan
Listverse included Sudha in their list of Top 10 Extraordinary People With Disabilities published on January 18, 2010. Stephen Hawking was number 2 in the list as he was able to surpass the lifespan given to him by doctors after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). He's even authored bestselling books and became a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Beethoven, the greatest composer of all time, was deaf but managed to create beautiful pieces like 9th Symphony, the 5th Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the Late Quartets, and Missa Solemnis. Marla Runyan was number 9. She was most known for being the first blind athlete to join able-bodied Olympic competition. She went on to win 5 Gold Medals in Paralympic Games. Sudha was number 10. What's even more interesting is her very inspiration, Helen Keller, topping the list. Check out the list here: Listverse.com
Organisations and Campaigns Supported
- Organ Donation Awareness
- Narmada Kidney Foundation
- Mahaveer Limb Center, Hubli
- National Association of Disabled Enterprises (Vice-Chairperson and Spokesperson)
- Advisory Board of Witty Kids High School (Member)
- Sudha Chandran Academy of Dance
- 1985: Received National Award
- 1986: Received Special Jury Award
- 1986: Received award from National Film Awards
- 1999: Won Best Actress Award given by the Government of Gujarat
- 2000: Won another Best Actress Award given by the Government of Gujarat
- 2003: Received The Star Plus Channel Award
- 2005: Received award for Best Supporting Actor
- 2005: Received award from The Indian Television Academy
- 2006: Received the Lachu Maharaj Award
- 2009: Received the Steel of the Mind Award from Godfrey Phillips India, Ltd.
- 2009: Received the Suryadatta National Award
- 2009: Recipient of the Yavanika Natya Pratibha award
- Received Silver Lotus Award
- Established Sudra Chandran Academy of Dance
- Honoured by the Rotary Club
- Honoured by the Lions Club
- Honoured by Inner Wheel Clubs
- Honoured by Jaycees
- Honoured by film journalist associations
- Honoured by film critics associations
- Received Nritya Mayuri from the Dance Academy and Bharatnatyam
- Received Nav Jyoti from the Telugu Academy
- Constructed "Hygienic Cool Driving Water-Hut" at Center Bus Stand, Hubli, Railway Station, Hubli and at Kanak Bhavan, Gadag
- Provides affordable notebooks and compass boxes every year
- Included in the Listverse.com's Top Ten Extraordinary People with Disabilities
- MacMillan Ltd. included cited her story in their book "Knockout Challenges"
- India included her story in their textbooks
- Received the Best Actress award in a negative role