September 26, 2013
September 26, 2013
Roma Neupane, who partially lost her leg as a child, is challenging discrimination against disabled people in Nepalese society with her famous one-legged dance performances.
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – On the evening of the memorial day of a former Nepalese political leader, popular satirist Manoj Gajurel calls Roma Neupane, 26, to ascend the dais inside Nepal Academy Hall amid thundering applause. She takes the stage in Kathmandu, the nation’s capital, with a crutch, then puts it aside and begins folk dancing – on one leg – to Nepalese music.
Neupane wears a red blouse over her red sari and a yellow cloth around her waist. A red ribbon and yellow flowers adorn her long, dark hair. She wears bangles on her wrists and anklets on her one visible leg.
She smiles while she dances, swaying and hopping gracefully and moving her hands expressively. The effect is as if she were dancing on two legs.
The audience of about 500 people immediately becomes emotional. They clap, raise their hands and whistle with passion until their cheers reverberate throughout the hall.
After the program, people eagerly donate money to Neupane in denominations of 500 Nepalese rupees ($5) and more to show their appreciation.
In a country where disabled people often face discrimination and other challenges, Neupane has earned money, fame and respect through her artistry and hard work.
Disabled people in Nepal regularly struggle against social humiliation and a lack of facilities and services, says Dipawali Sharma, vice president of the National Federation of the Disabled Nepal, a nonprofit umbrella organization representing disabled people’s groups.
“In comparison to the rural areas, urban areas may have undergone a few changes,” she says. “But in reality, we have to struggle hard for the real changes.”
The Nepalese parliament proposed in 2012 an extended version of the nation’s act for the protection and welfare of disabled people, Sharma says. But because of parliament’s dissolution later that year, the act is still pending.
Neupane is originally from Itahari, a small town in the foothills of eastern Nepal. When she was 8, she lost her left leg from the knee down after a vehicle ran over it.
She obtained treatment for six months at the district hospital. Doctors tried in vain to save her damaged leg but eventually had to amputate it.
“I learned to walk on crutches in the same hospital,” she says.
Neupane has been a dancer since her childhood days, although she was more secretive about her art then.
“I used to dance well ever since I was a child,” she says. “If I ever heard a song on the radio, I wanted to dance. I used to shut the door for fear that others would tease [me] to see me limping on one leg.”
As she got older, her fear became a reality.
“Later, when I grew up, people started to look at me with the crutches going to the school and back,” Neupane says. “They used to follow me and tease me. When even my close friends started to keep distance from me, I felt that the society was discriminating [against] me simply because I was disabled.”
Those bitter experiences prompted her to do something meaningful to prove her worth, she says. After secondary school, she gathered the courage to move to Kathmandu in 2002 to seek better opportunities.
Belonging to a lower-middle-class family with no resources, she went hungry on many of her early days in the city, she says. But still, she struggled ahead.
The National Paralympic Committee Nepal, an organization that supports disabled athletes, organized a cultural program in Kathmandu in 2003. Knowing that Neupane loved dancing and had continued to practice in private, one of her friends asked the organizers to give her a chance to perform in the program.
Neupane recounts the momentous day.
“I cannot describe in words how much appreciation and applause I got that day,” she says. “I was covered extensively by even the local media. Newspapers printed my photos dancing on one leg. I received 800 rupees [$8] that day as a reward, which encouraged me to pursue dancing as a career.”
Neupane continued dancing for the next few years, until a chance encounter at a cultural program in 2006 brought a teacher, Keshab Sapkota, into her life.
“Before that, I danced all by myself without any formal training,” Neupane says. “After that, I learned dancing from him.”
Sapkota says he remembers the first time he saw Neupane dance.
“When the 19-year-old Roma climbed up the stage on crutches, put them in a corner, and started dancing with just one leg, I was really amazed,” he says. “I got dazzled and speechless. I was convinced of her talent and her ability to grab the interest of the audience, and I thought this girl is definitely going to be highly successful pretty soon.”
Sapkota took Neupane’s training seriously.
“My instructor himself danced on one leg just to teach me how [to] do better,” Neupane says.
In 2006, the then-ambassador of Israel to Nepal saw her dance in a program in Kathmandu and offered to give her an artificial leg, she says. She traveled to Israel to receive it, but she soon realized that she felt more comfortable on crutches, so she stopped using the prosthesis.
Today, her art is in high demand around the world.
“I have performed mostly all over Nepal and occasionally in many places in India too,” she says. “I have also presented my performance in Israel, Malaysia, Kuwait and South Korea. I have received about 100 awards and letters of appreciation.”
In Nepal, she charges 10,000 rupees ($100) per show, she says. When performing abroad, she commands up to 20,000 rupees ($200) per performance. In addition to her fee, she can earn up to 300,000 rupees ($3,000) in tips from spectators and agencies in a single show abroad.
Neupane’s success on stage has reduced discrimination against her in Nepalese society. Her in-laws initially disapproved of her marriage to her husband, Chiranjeevy Pokhrel, because they thought her disability would ruin his future, she says.
“Afterwards, when they saw my increasing success, I was loved as their own daughter,” Neupane says.
Neupane and her husband have a 4-year-old son, and her success has made her the breadwinner of the family.
Using profits from her dance performances, she bought the restaurant where her husband had been working when they first met, she says. She recently purchased a second restaurant in Kathmandu. She and her husband also run two guesthouses in the city.
Neupane gives her teacher as well as her husband credit for her success and prestige today.
In turn, she tries to use her talent and success to help others.
“Depending on the situation, I sometimes dance free of charge for the welfare of the disabled and for the miserable old persons, apart from providing jobs at my restaurant,” she says. “And I am also planning to provide increasing jobs in the days to come.”
Meanwhile, she continues to perform. She performed abroad in Qatar and Belgium in September 2013.
Neupane has opened new horizons for Nepal’s disabled community through her art, Sapkota says.
“Neupane has proved beyond doubt that even the disabled people can become highly successful if they continuously work hard with full dedication,” he says.
Rama Dhakal, the president of Nepal Disabled Women Association, a nongovernmental organization supporting women with disabilities to pursue their human rights, says that Neupane’s achievement has inspired other disabled people and that the dancer has become a role model for them.
Neupane says her talent is transforming society’s perception of people with disabilities.
“People used to know me as a disabled person walking on crutches,” Neupane says. “Now, people know me as an artist. I am really happy.”
This article was translated from Nepali.