‘One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.’ Helen Keller knew the power of the human spirit. So does Elangovan Naidu. Paralysed his body may be, but his heart and mind are stronger than most.

‘One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.’ Helen Keller knew the power of the human spirit.

So does Elangovan Naidu. But his wish is not to soar, but to walk and run. Forced to spend his prime in a wheelchair, the quadriplegic for 35 years, has little control over organs below the neck. He feels nothing but pain. Paralysed his body may be, but his heart and mind are stronger than most.

For Elangovan, his disability has never been a liability. Residing in his hometown Ammapalayam in Perambalur district, a placid hamlet nestled at the foot of the Vanni hills, he attempts to fill his world with colours as a mouth painter. Sitting in his breezy porch against striking backdrop of hills, he draws inspiration from rustic life that unfolds before his eyes. With a brush held deftly in his mouth, his laborious strokes make the canvas come alive.

“To be frank, I started painting because I was in need of money. I did not want to be a burden on my family,” he admits, “Soon I realized painting was also an ideal diversion. When I paint, I forget my pain,”

Tryst with tragedy

Elangovan served as an airman in the Indian Air Force from 1970 to 1975. Owing to financial constraints, he did not pursue higher education but applied to the Air force on a whim. Young and athletic, he was selected and posted at Amritsar in 1971. Elangovan recollects his ‘salad days’ with visible pride and gleam in his eyes. Part of 230 SU Air Force, he served during the 1971 Indo-Pak war.

A picnic with colleagues proved disastrous for the youth brimming with vitality, when he injured his spinal cord by diving into a shallow pool. When he speaks about the incident, a flash of regret unwittingly crosses the otherwise unperturbed face.

“I underwent treatment in various Army Hospitals. I was confident I would walk again, till I was admitted in a paraplegic home in Pune with several other war casualties.”

When this reality hit him hard in 1978, he struggled to come to terms with his circumstances.

“I was determined to be financially independent. I have always refrained from asking anyone for monetary help and I am proud of that. I never want to receive but always give,” says the artist who prizes his self-respect and independence highly.

Reverting to art

Elangovan’s first steps were as a painter of greeting cards. A Bengali Superintendent, Colonel Roy, prompted him to paint and helped him find a market for his work through stalls at various shows. Elangovan also made good the opportunities he received to showcase his work at exhibitions in Pune, Chennai and Mumbai. He earned accolades, though initially he struggled to balance the brush with his mouth, let alone create something with it.

Hospitalised at intervals, Elangovan like the proverbial phoenix rose every time he fell, coming back with renewed vigour.

“There were moments when I felt depressed. I often used to wonder if such a life was necessary. I have questioned the reason for my existence many times.”

Timely help came in the form of the Bible and Elangovan felt resigned to life perusing the wisdom of ages.

“Being an avid reader I soon exhausted all the books I could find in hospitals. Having nothing to read, I chanced on a Tamil Bible and started reading it like any other book. But the constant emphasis on happiness, love and hope touched me,” he recalls, “I soon realized that nothing is more important than happiness. I wanted to be happy and make others happy.”

Bend in the road

Elangovan’s life took a turn for the better when he learnt about the Mouth and Foot Painters Association (MFPA), headquartered in Liechtenstein from Pastor Johnson at Spicer College, Pune. In 1984, Elangovan became the third Indian to join the association that aims at making mouth and foot painters independent.

As a stipendiary scholar, Elangovan‘s selected works were copied on cards and table calendars, for which he continues to receive royalty. Confident of supporting himself and his family, he moved to his hometown, and now resides with his mother, sister and a friend who assists him.

One of Elangovan’s defining moments was travelling abroad to participate in an exhibition in Taipei in 1991.

“I was hesitant, but my friends persuaded me. And it turned out to be the most memorable experience in my life.”

From 1984, the self-assured artist has tried his hand at larger paintings and there has been no looking back ever since. He dabbles chiefly with water colours and oil paintings, but has a penchant for landscapes with a marked weakness for flowers. His paintings are all about radiance, brightness and joy. One look at them and you cannot help speculating what wonders he could have created with hands. Then again, Elangovan might have never turned to painting if not for the accident that altered his life.

“There are times when I wonder what I might have become if not for the accident. Perhaps I would have become a banker or an insurance officer like my friends. Or who knows, I could have turned out into a drunkard. Looking back, I can say I am content with this life.”

The indomitable painter manages average 30 paintings a year. Though age is fast catching up, he presents a youthful demeanour at 60. But his painting has felt the pinch in recent years, and every stroke has become increasingly painstaking.

“I get tired easily now. Still I paint for at least three hours a day. Earlier, I used to paint from 4 a.m. till late evening with intervals,” he shares.

His dedication and meticulousness are evident from the fact that he is critical of his own work and scans his paintings for flaws.

Life and philosophy

A typical day in his life finds him resting in bed or seated in his electronic wheelchair. Apart from painting, books, newspapers and television keep him engaged. His recent obsession has been with computer chess. Yet, it is the evenings he looks forward to, when friends come calling.

Invited to speak at various motivational programmes, Elangovan’s key message to the differently-abled is, “Be self-confident and self reliant. Do something to support yourself.”

On a more serious note, he points out, “It is not enough to call the disabled as differently- abled. There are plenty of welfare schemes available, they need to be implemented.”

Though all his life, he has depended on someone for every movement and every need, he is convinced, “If you do not lack your mental balance when confined to this state, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”

Someone who has crossed many hurdles, his ability to laugh at himself and his troubles has kept him going. “My friends keep asking me how I mange to be cheerful, in spite of increasing health problems. I ask them whether they expect me to cry or complain. I cannot cry or pity myself. It is beyond me,” he says fiercely. “I never take anything too seriously or worry too much,” he explains.

This indomitable painter, for whom happiness is paramount in life, is someone who has made sweet lemonade with the lemons life handed him.