By Uma Sudhir
“I tell you, there is a good reason for you to go and see this doctor. He is handsome and suave.”
Ananda said this to me, giggling like a teenager. There was nothing flippant about her advice though. She was asking me to go for a mammogram. And it was the voice of experience speaking. If I had expected her to become sombre and serious, change from the vivacious, lively self I had known her to be, just because she had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, I was wrong.
That was more than two years ago. As I saw photos in the newspapers of the same Ananda Shankar Jayant, smiling brightly as she received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for Bharatanatyam, from the President of India a couple of weeks ago, I knew I needed to tell this story, not simply because her grit and grace deserves to be written about, but for your sake and mine.
I remember one of the earlier works of Ananda, inspired by Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, about searching for excellence and rising above one’s physical limitations and going beyond that. Ananda has shown how a parable can be lived out in real life, where often romanticism gets edged out.
In July 2008, Ananda noticed a lump in the breast just before leaving for the US on a tour. When she returned, she found out that the lump was malignant. She confesses her first thoughts were “Is this the end of the road?”
But she wouldn’t let herself wallow in self-pity, in fear and tears. She wouldn’t ask “why me?” After all, she says modestly, I didn’t ask that question when I was nominated for the Padma Shri in 2007 or Kalaimamani in 2002. When I took those with pride, why not this with acceptance?
Ananda shares it was obviously not easy, to go from beautiful to bald, from someone who could dance non-stop for hours to finding it difficult to climb a flight of stairs, to lose control, to fight tears. She knew she needed control of three things : her thought, images in her mind and her action and for that she needed power over her body, mind and spirit.
Ananda says she used the metaphor of Mahishasuramardini, the same goddess Durga, with 18 arms, fearless, resplendent, bedecked, beautiful, ready for warfare, the epitome of creative, feminine energy, and internalised that symbolic image.
Combining that with what has been her passion for four decades, Ananda danced after a few weeks of surgery, between chemo and radiation cycles. In her own words, she tuned out of cancer and tuned into dance. Just like the Goddess conquered evil, Ananda says she conquered cancer.
“I don’t want to be called a survivor but rather a conqueror,” she says with a very obvious glint.
It is perhaps only incidental that I write about her in a month that is observed to spread awareness about breast cancer. Because there are a lot many more reasons to write about her. Incidentally, this is also the month the power and glory of Goddess Durga is celebrated across the country.
That this Indian Railway Traffic Service officer is a brilliant dancer, trained in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, with several critically acclaimed creative works to her credit, I don’t need to talk about. The list of honours she has won speak for themselves, including Chennai’s Sri Krishna Gana Sabha Nrityachoodamani in 2006 and Andhra Pradesh state Kalaratna in 2008.
What I find amazing is that she has managed to do what she said. Make cancer just a page in her life, and she has moved on. The list of engagements on her calender don’t seem to have taken even a pause.
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