The first thing one notices about Vaishnavi Indran Pillai is her ready smile and the second is how it lights up her countenance. Meeting with Navi — as she is affectionately known — at the National Cancer Society of Malaysia (NCSM), it was difficult for this writer to imagine that the bright-looking 29-year-old had battled and triumphed over cancer twice.
It is always easy to celebrate the victories of life but, in Navi’s case, what she has overcome is not only hard-won but also more poignant in the light of what lies ahead — she is on lifelong targeted therapy, along with hormone therapy, once every three weeks.
Still, having been in remission since last December, she is now able to get back to the one thing she has missed the most since she was first diagnosed in 2013 with stage three breast cancer. In 2017, an annual check-up revealed that the cancer had spread to her liver and backbone.
“I started learning Bharatanatyam at age six at the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA), under the tutelage of Latha Udhaya,” says Navi. After studying and performing for 14 years with Malaysia’s pioneering classical Indian dance institute, she went on to join Laasya Arts Academy under its principal, Guruvayur Usha Dorai, and staged her arangetram (graduation recital) in 2008.
“I slowed down when I pursued my degree in mechanical engineering but I only completely stopped dancing when I was diagnosed,” notes the holder of a master’s degree in programme management. She is currently head of the volunteer programme at NCSM.
In the last few months, Navi has been in the dance studio daily, preparing for her solo performance, Dhanvantrim Nruthyam, at TFA next month.
She credits the radiant glow about her to the exercise and natural joy that comes from doing something she loves. “I smile when I’m done, even though I’m so tired. Treatment can take a toll and, with the hormone therapy, my body is going to a lot of places that I can’t really control.But doing something I love really helps.
“For me, dance is it. When I dance, I forget that I am sick, that I’m in pain. I feel a thousand times better. For me, dance can be healing,” she says.
Picking up the art form again also has a new significance — it is her way of thumbing her nose at a disease that many regard as a death sentence. “Bharatanatyam is rigorous, but it’s a way of showing that through all the difficulties, I’m coming back. This is to also send out a sense of positive energy, that we can do it,” Navi emphasises.
An advocate for cancer support and passionate about motivating people throughout her journey — followers of her Instagram account will attest to this — she also recently spoke about lobbying in Parliament for stronger support for cancer patients in public hospitals.
This dance showcase is also a platform that she hopes to do more with. “I was thinking I needed to do something to show people that I’m still passionate about something I love. For someone else, it may not be dance but I’m trying to tell people to do something they love, despite the setbacks,” says Navi.
If there is one thing cancer has taught her, it is that while it can really break you — if not physically, then mentally — coming close to death also showed her that it cannot stop her from living. “Life is not just a cycle of studying, getting that job, house and car, and getting married. It’s fine to do that but it’s also fine not to follow that cycle. My cycle ended up very different, but it helped me find my purpose in life — to motivate others. So, I am putting my passion and dreams first. Sometimes, that’s not selfish because you can inspire and help others through it.”
The performance is her way of exercising this belief in a small way. Navi’s therapy costs up to RM15,000 every three weeks. With her insurance coverage fast depleting, she wants to combine her passion with doing what she can to raise additional funds.
“My parents are very supportive and many cancer patients have done crowdfunding. Still, I don’t want to just take but also give back — be it through documenting my life on social media, giving talks or doing this [dance].”
Featuring five pieces choreographed by her teacher, Usha, the two-hour-long performance is an ambitious effort, to say the least, particularly when Navi has to shoulder the entire performance, albeit with the help of an Indian classical band, Ominous, which will play between her dance pieces.
Asked whether dancing is easier than battling cancer, Navi laughs, “No! Cancer wasn’t just my problem … after a while, it became the doctor’s problem as well. This [dancing] is different, it’s a personal challenge both physically and mentally.”
Besides age catching up with her and the length of time since she last performed, there are days when it is difficult for her to draw enough strength to enter the studio. Nevertheless, Navi says, “Even if I don’t go in the morning, I will go at night. People say that I shouldn’t push myself but this is good stress.”
She says candidly, “I’m 29, battling this disease. My friends are not. My friends are getting married, getting a new job, going places … I’m not doing those things. Sometimes, these little thoughts do come. But when I started dancing again, I thought, maybe these things are not so important. It helps me to focus on my inner self, to forget my problems. When I dance, I’m just dancing. I’m in that little world and no one can take it away from me, not even cancer. I feel that, no matter what, I will always be a dancer.”
'Dhanvantrim Nruthyam' will be held on Oct 12 (6.01pm) at the Shantanand Auditorium, TFA, 116 Jalan Berhala, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. Tickets are priced at RM30, RM50, RM75 and RM100. Purchase here.
This article first appeared on Sept 30, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.