Shubhada Varadkar – the artist with a magic touch. Transforming lives through her own journey of life through chemotherapy and radiation, depicted in her production Mayurpankh - Dance of Hope. Shubhada shares her experience of overcoming ovarian cancer through immense conviction of staying connected to her passion – dancing, proving that hope and strength can conquer every challenge, including Cancer.
"During a performance in London in 2006, I was bleeding profusely. I ignored it and completed the performance. Back in Mumbai, a diagnosis reported a 10-inch tumour in one of my ovaries. Doctors were shocked wondering how I managed to perform – I should have been bed-ridden in pain. They continued to be in shock when I performed regularly between my chemo sessions." Cancer was never bigger than Shubhada's spirit. The stage was set for the most demanding and remarkable real-life performance by Shubhada.
Shubhada is an extraordinary individual in every sense. A proficient exponent of Indian classical dance – Odissi, her dance is a fascinating union of eloquent expressions, graceful movements and captivating sense of rhythm teamed with Odissi's legendary heritage. An A grade National artist, Shubhada, is recipient of many prestigious awards like "Mahari Award '', and "Singar Mani Award". A post graduate in economics, Shubhada was a newscaster with Indian Television in Mumbai, as well as a lecturer of Economics. The call of the tinkling anklets made her give up her other careers and devote all her time and energy to Indian classical dance. As one of the articles on her dance performances puts it, she is hailed as a Prima Dona in Odissi and one can experience "joie de vivre'' when she performs.
Born into a prominent Maharashtrian family, she is the granddaughter of Dr. V. R. Khanolkar, the first Dean of Tata Memorial Cancer Research Institute. Inclined towards Indian Classical dance since childhood and being academically sound, her parents never objected to her formal training in Bharatanatyam. While in Senior Secondary school, she attended the performance of Guru Shri Kelucharan Mohapatra. Mesmerised, young Shubhda knew it would be her performing Odissi dance-form on stage in future. She approached her then guru Shri Mani, receiving permission to undertake further training under Guru Shri Kelucharan Mohapatra. There was no looking back ever since.
When she shared the news of cancer with her mother, Shubhada anticipated succumbing to the emotional response and weakening. However, even though the initial intake of the news was full of shock, her family soon readied to extend full support to Shubhada on this journey. Being a professional artist, Shubhada was worried about the stigma and reduction in offers that would have accompanied the public knowledge of her medical condition. Dance is a competitive profession, which is predominantly based on the physical ability of individuals to perform and act.
Once Chemotherapy began, Shubhada started losing hair from her body. She got herself a short-hair wig and pretended to have undergone a make-over, off-stage. However, on-stage this wasn't as simple. Odissi dance involves an elaborate mukut – a head gear, which needs to be balanced on one's hair. This was impossible on a ready-made wig or extensions. This is when Shubhada's mother made a special wig for her fighter daughter, with strings that could be tied behind ears, securing it in its place. Though apprehensive, her doctors and guru supported her decision. While Shubhada wasn't allowed to practice, she conceptualised the dance, lying on bed. She thought she would do just the basic abhinaya, but ended up performing the whole recital. A chance meeting with another cancer patient at a dance competition she was judging, changed Shubhda's perspective on making her own experience public.
Observing and sensing the trauma of a lady present at the competition, Shubhada discovered her ongoing treatment to cure cancer. Unlike Shubhada, the lady understandably had severe psychological trauma accepting her medical condition. She shared her shattered life post diagnosis as a cancer-patient. She used to be a dancer like Shubhada before getting cancer. However, unlike Shubhada, she quit dancing. Her health was deteriorating rapidly for she was largely losing hope in every aspect. Cancer seeped into her self-identity, weakening every other significant part of her life. This was when Shubhada, for the first time in two years, shared her own experience of going through a similar journey and coming out stronger.
The impact this conversation had on the lady was life-changing. May be, for both of them, in different ways. It was a magic touch for the lady, who promised to embrace her identity as a complete human once again. She took up dancing again. Simultaneously, for Shubhada, it was an eye-opener to the real-time challenges cancer brings for most, if not all, patients. It was then that she decided to come out loud and clear on her journey. She penned Mayurpankh, an autobiography in Marathi depicting a detailed account of her life, including the journey through cancer. Further, she choreographed a dance sequence known as Mayurpankh – Dance of Hope. This rendition of the cycle of acceptance, depicting each emotion experienced by people undergoing cancer treatment –shock, denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance is performed by her troupe, often times for people undergoing cancer treatment.
Such is the power of this soulful production, it rightly touches people with new hope, as the title suggests. With immense support from her family and close friends, especially her mother, Shubhada endured a year and a half of therapy and came out a stronger person. In retrospect, she asserts that cancer is not the end of the world. It is a challenging journey to go through it but one must hold on to the things and people important in their lives. She emphasizes on the importance of keeping hope alive, keeping oneself engaged in some vocation or passion and most importantly, believing that one can overcome cancer and its implied stigma.
Shubhada also addresses lack of primary screening and detection facilities in our country, making it very difficult to prevent cancer. For the past three years, she has been working closely with the cause of rehabilitation of cancer-survivors. Her passion is not just limited to dance, but extends in every aspect of her life – she puts her heart in everything she chooses to do.