The danseuse describes the tragic car accident that broke her ribs and dislocated her spine, and how she danced again
By Dr Sonal Mansingh
I met with a terrible car accident in (West) Germany in 1974. It happened on an autobahn leading to the border of East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Those were pre-seat belt days and I was thrown out of the Beetle, almost 15 feet, onto the hard road. I had passed out and was only later told that four ribs, a few other bones and, most importantly, vertebrae were broken. The 12th disc was smashed to powder and the spine hung loose at a hair’s breadth by the spinal cord. Three to four days on a foam-rubber mattress were prescribed while a four-kg plaster cast was affixed from my neck to the hips along with a rucksack to hold my chest and ribs.
The story of my total recovery became the stuff of textbook lessons. My chiropractor, Dr Pierre Gravel, who treated me (sans fees) in Montreal, Canada, presented my case, complete with x-rays and process of recovery reports, at world conferences. My first performance was in Bombay in late April 1975 and in Delhi on May 2, 1975 in a hall bursting with the elite of Delhi. I was in better form than before!
Even four and a half decades later I am asked about the accident and requested to motivate people not to give up. I would like to share that one sentence which encapsulated the mystery of my recovery. Dr Gravel said to a bunch of world-renowned chiropractors: “Sonal made demands on her body and Nature provided.” This refers to a new bone which grew between the 11th and 13th discs, like a bridge, which till today allows me to dance, walk and travel!
I interpret Dr Gravel’s assertion as the demand made by my innermost feelings, my heartfelt desire to keep dancing. I often wonder about what I would have become were I not a dancer, perhaps I would have quietly accepted my fate to remain a “normally walking” woman – as predicted by the German doctors.
The Heart is the centre of our Being. The Heart is at once a tangible, palpable muscle and also a concept. There are any number of references to the Heart as a Lotus which opens to the warm sunshine of love, friendship, affection and care. Just as the lotus opens petal by petal, the Heart warms slowly, absorbing caring, loving attitude. The Lotus Sutra in Buddhism has this famous Sutra: ॐ मणिपद्मे हुम् (Oum Mani Padme Hum which roughly translates as “Jewel within the Lotus”).
In Sanatana Dharma there is this concept of Chidambaram i.e., Chitta + Ambaram (चित्ता + अम्बरम) that space within the Heart in which feelings, and every shade of ‘I’ness reside. The famous temple at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu is dedicated to the king of dancers, Shiva Nataraja, who dances the Ananda Tandava, Dance of Bliss, in the sanctum sanctorum of our Heart.
The Heart as a metaphor or adjective is often used in common parlance as “heartless, full of heart, hearty laughter, hearty meal”, etc. But now is also the time for the Heart to pick up courage to face the post-pandemic world. This Heart as a muscle has to learn to breathe deeply to strengthen the lungs. The Heart has to keep breathing till the last breath. This rhythm forms the basis of our dance and music. The heartbeat is the inner rhythm which binds movements and melody, which beats complex rhythmic cycles for which Indian music and dance are revered. So, when I hear “my heart beats for you” it may be in sympathy or love, compassion or sarcasm! All that matters is that the good Heart is beating, that Heart is strong and the person is alive and breathing! I recall with great pride and humility my dance offering at Mount Kailash, dancing to please the king of dancers, Shri Shiva Nataraja, and the mother of creation, the queen of dance, Nateshwari Devi Parvati. At the great height of Ashtapaad, facing the south face of Mount Kailash, I danced for nearly 30 minutes in the oxygen-deprived air. This was possible because of my regular practice of dance and Pranayam which made my Heart strong enough to fulfil my lifelong prayer. I firmly believe in a strong Heart which in turn creates a strong mind and body.
Art does not allow the Heart to lose hope, to become nervous or depressed
(The author is Padma Vibhushan, Member of Parliament, Government of India.)