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Saying No to Cancer, Yes To Life and Passion

Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant is a renowned classical dancer, choreographer, bureaucrat and, of late, a motivational speaker, having survived a spell of breast cancer. An exponent of Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi, she is an alumna of the famed Kalakshetra in Chennai. In her resident city of Hyderabad, Dr. Ananda runs the Shankarananda Kalakshethra that has groomed scores of dancersand has been organizing cultural festivals since she founded the institution in 1979.

A recipient of prestigious national  honours like Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award, the 54-year-old artiste has been dancing and propagating her art for more than four decades now. A university topper in Ancient Indian History, an M.Phil in Art History and holding a Ph.D in Tourism, she isanimated about making performing and visual arts a part of the education policy which can inspire children to nourish an early talent.

Dr. Ananda, a senior official with Indian Railway Traffic Service, got a shock of her life when she was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago. But she came out triumphant from that phase. Following this, she has gained reputation as a motivational speaker with a busy schedule across corporate houses and charity organizations. A TED speaker in 2009, her TED talk is now ranked as one of the 50 Amazingly Motivational talks on YouTube as well as one of the 12 Incredible TED talks on cancer. Early this year, she addressed an India Conference at the Harvard University in the US.

Dr. Ananda has made classical dance her mainstay and balancing it with the demands of her job as a senior Railway Ministry official. Significantly, she has succeeded in bringing the two southern classical dances in the realm of popular perception by removing the stamp of obscurity and elitism on them. With an acclaimed and intense body of work that spans rich mythologies, historical chronicles, searing commentaries on topical issues, philosophical enquiry, poetry, storytelling and humour, she is engaged in every aspect of dance. Here is her story of how she fought cancer and how she came out triumphant from that phase of her life:-

My passion for dance began early in life “ a chance meeting at a temple , when I was 4 years old “ a comment that “This child has large eyes” you must teach her dance, saw my mother Subhashini Shankar enroll me into dance classes.. And thus began my tryst with dance. My dance training continued in Hyderabad, until I won a gold medal at the age of 11 and was invited to join Kalakshetra, to take up dancing full time.  I spent six years at Kalakshetra, learning Bharata Natyam, Carnatic music, Veena, dance theory, philosophy, Sanskrit, etc., and acquired a Diploma and a Post-graduate Diploma in Bharata Natyam.

I had been in dance for more than 4 decades, I had trained with the best in the field,  performed across the globe, taught young and old alike, created, collaborated,  and had woven a rich tapestry of artistry, achievement and awards, including the Padma Shri in 2007.

But nothing, nothing whatsoever, prepared me for what I was to hear on the 1st of July , 2008.That day I heard the word Carcinoma. As I sat numb struck in my Doctor’s office, I heard other words “ Cancer, Stage, Grade. Until then Cancer was a Zodiac sign, stage was what I danced on and grades were what I got in school. But that day they took on an ominous meaning.

As a dancer I know the Navarasa “(Shringara, Hasya, Karuna, Roudra,Veera, Bhibatsa, Adhbhuta, Shanta and Bhayanaka) – I thought I knew what Bhayanaka was, that day I learnt what fear was. That day I also realized that I now had an unwelcome, uninvited, new life partner.

On that day,  I was diagnosed with breast cancer. As my husband Jayant and I drove home, I shed copious tears. Overcome with the enormity and the complete loss of control I asked him, if this was the end of the road? The end of my dance? But Jayant being the extremely positive person that he is, said “ No, this is only a hiatus and after treatment you will be back to doing what you most love. “

So here I was wallowing in a vortex of emotions “ anger, fear, frustration, misery.., with the enormity of the situation, wanting to go to a place of healing, health and happiness.

I pulled myself together, and declared to the world at large that:

a) I will ride this out, and I won’t allow the cancer to ride me; b) I will not say Why me? (I didn’t say why me when I received all my awards. So why should I say why me now?:) c) Cancer is only one page of my life and I will not allow this to impact the rest of my life

Further, I unburdened myself from the secrecy associated with cancer. I myself told the world about it. I refused to be limited and cramped by cancer .I decided not to allow something as transient as a health setback, takeover me and my mind.

I needed to simply shift my mental gears from where I was to where I wanted to be And so, I got ready for the surgery like I go about staging a new choreographed production !

But to go from where I was to where I wanted to be, I needed something. I needed an anchor, an image, a peg to peg this process on, so that I could go from there. And I found that in my dance, my dance, my strength, my energy, my passion, my very life breath.

My husband Jayant Dwarkanath, my biggest source of strength, bolstered my moods, which were swivelling in a eddy of emotions, by saying that, the therapy even chemo therapy was like Amrutham or nectar, for it is healing you, and whoever said that nectar had to be easy and sweet!He has never allowed me to lose faith.

And so I made my most important decision – Not to focus on cancer and its attendant visitors. The only way I could escape focusing on the cancer, was to focus on something that animated me and moved me and touched me. And that, I found in my dance. Dance is really who I am. Dance is really my life’s breath, in that sense of the word.

I pulled myself out of the thought processes that send you into that emotional whirlpool that cancer can push you into. It does that. But, because I had something else to focus on and something else to shift my mind to.

I would go and get my chemo, take the three days rest that my body needed, and then I was back in the studio dancing, teaching or doing choreography. Your mind is really your final frontier. Sure, it wasn’t easy. How do you not despair, when climbing a mere flight of stairs, was sheer torture, that too to someone who has always been commended for my high energy dancing?

How does one focus and stay the course, while the misery overwhelms and overpowers you? All I wanted to do was curl up and weep. But then, I had told myself that fear and tears are options I did not have! And so, I would drag myself everyday into my dance studio, and practice as much as I could. Every time, the cancer clutter invaded my mind, I would regroup and rework my mental frequency into dance. And yet, I needed something more, to go that extra mile, something that would lead me, goad me and keep me on the path. I found it in a shloka I had learnt at my mother’s knee when I was four. Jaya Jaya He Mahishasura Mardini Durga “ World Mother, Mother Goddess created by the pantheon of Gods, who invested in her, their every power “ to destroy Mahisha; Durga, resplendent, beautiful, bedecked, Her 18 arms ready for warfare, as she rode into the battlefield astride Her Lion; Durga “ The embodiment of Shakti , of Creative Feminine energy; Durga “ The fearless one I owned that image, and made her every attribute my very own. And, Durga rode into the battlefield astride a lion. She was Simhanandini.

My lion was my own inner strength, my inner resilience ” that all of us have. I just decided that I was going to tap into it, into this extraordinary source of energy and strength. Powered by the symbology of a myth and the passion of my training, I chose an alternative state of mind. I brought laser-sharp focus into my dance, laser-sharp focus to such an extent that I danced a few weeks after surgery. I danced through chemo and radiation cycles. And so through two years of cancer treatment, I danced professionally through it all, even as I continued to teach, train and choreograph , curated National dance festivals, and ground breaking Dance conferences, and toured extensively. What I had done was, I had tuned out of cancer and tuned into my dance. I did not seek reasons for why cancer visited me or remonstrate with a personal God as to how He/She had let me down! Most importantly, I chose not to take cancer too personally or too seriously.

I realized we have the Power and that Power is CHOICE — Choice not to succumb to negativity, Choice to ride out any crisis, Choice to actualize your every dream, to live the life you want, to be positive, Choice to be happy, Choice to choose. My story is the story of overcoming setbacks, obstacles and challenges that life throws at you. My story is the power of thought, of focus, of the mind, of a passion.

Any art form or passion, for that matter, balances our core energies, and allows us a peek into what can be; helps us overcome our limited beliefs and becomes our sheet anchor, and veritable life support, of a beautiful life. The business of life is to challenge us and thereby help our learning curve. It is during such times that our passion – in my case my dance “ becomes the super conductor that taps into the Life Force of the Universe and the Supreme energy of the Divine, to become one’s Prana. My challenge was cancer. Cancer may have chosen me, but I have chosen my passion, my dance. As my favorite author Wayne Dyer says, Heaven on earth is not a place you must find but a choice you must make.

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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