Hands Off! It’s All about the Feet
Nature is beautiful, for those who care to observe;
Life is full of colours, for those who wish to live.
Love is beautiful, for those who have experienced it.
Disability can be an opportunity too, for those who set themselves
Often as we grow up, we recollect memories of our childhood;
of playing in the mud, dancing in the rains, running around with
friends, and being loved and pampered by our parents. Memories
which make us smile and make us want to become a child again.
But not everyone is fortunate to have a healthy childhood. For some,
the disharmony in their parent’s relationship makes the memories
of their childhood haunting. Sheela Sharma’s childhood was a dark
period. Her mother had jumped onto the railway track with Sheela in
her arms. With a train hurtling at her at full speed, Sheela’s mother
was killed, but Sheela survived, albeit destined to a dark future.
Losing both her arms in the accident, Sheela went on to live a dark
and hopeless life. But life turned colourful again when Sheela was
introduced to the world of painting. Sheela learnt to express herself
through her work and is now one of the most prominent foot and
mouth artists of the country. Her story is about a person battered by
life from all corners and still finding a way to live, to smile. The story
of her left foot is the story of the triumph of spirit.
Sheela was born in Gorakhpur and had one of the most difficult
childhoods one could imagine. At a time when other children
played happily with their parents, Sheela would see hers fighting
and quarrelling. Sometimes the abuses they hurled at each other
made her wonder why they did not end their marriage. Was
poverty the curse or her father’s habit of drinking, Sheela did not
know. All she craved was love and peace.
On that unfortunate day Sheela’s father hurled abuses at her
mother again. Fed up of the abuses and of being beaten up, Sheela’s
mother could take it no more. She did not know what to do and
where to go.
Frustrated, she lost her will to live and in a fit of rage, decided
that the solution to her troubles was death. She decided to end
her life. While it is difficult to speculate what could have gone on
within her, what she did was definitely unimaginable. Perhaps
she did not want to leave her child at the mercy of the big bad
world. Perhaps she feared that with her gone, Sheela would have
no future. So she decided to kill her daughter before taking her
own life. She decided that along with her, her daughter would have
to leave the world.
Holding her little girl to her chest, she jumped in front of a
train. In the blink of an eye, her body was shred into pieces. Sheela
had a miraculous escape but both her arms had to be amputated.
Her future was thrown into darkness. Orphaned, disabled and
with nowhere to go, life seemed bleak for the little girl.
“When I opened my eyes, I was in pain. As a child, I could
not understand what was happening around me. I noticed
the amputation but thought maybe I was hallucinating
under the heavy doses of medicines. Someone left me at a
boarding school for the disabled in Delhi. I sometimes think
it might have been my very own father. I do not remember.”
Traumatic recollections troubled her. Often she would wake
up sweating in the middle of the night. Whenever she would come
across a railway track, she would feel her feet were frozen.
“As I grew up, I no longer wanted to live. I had horrific
memories of the incident always coming back to haunt me.”
For the little girl, her existence itself was a big question mark.
She had lost her mother and her father had abandoned her. She
grew up without hands and had no choice but to learn to do all her
daily chores using her feet. Right from changing clothes to having
food, Sheela had to do everything using her feet. Life offered her
no other choice.
A chance encounter with a disabled arts teacher in the boarding
school gave her the first exposure to the world of painting. The
artist gave Sheela elementary lessons making her hold the brushes
with her foot.
As a child, when she saw her teacher paint, Sheela would feel
drawn towards the colours. The world of painting was a no-barred
world, where she could paint freely and express herself. It was a
world which took her away from her painful memories. It was a
medium to express the silent sufferings in her life. It was a canvas
to begin afresh. All this inspired Sheela to put in extra effort to
learn the art of painting using her foot.
It came after a lot of practice and many challenges. Each time
Sheela tried to hold brushes with her foot and it didn’t work, and
each time she tried to paint fine lines ending up painting a stroke
wrong, Sheela resolved to try harder.
“The day I was able to hold a brush steady and complete a
painting with my foot was perhaps the happiest day of my
She started by painting large blocks but soon trained herself
to paint finer paintings. Sheela would find excuses to paint and
would gift her paintings to her friends and teachers in school. It
was the beginning of a new phase in her life. But just when she
had begun to settle in her new world, life again took a turn. The
boarding school she was in was abruptly shut down. Sheela was
put in a government’s women’s protection home in Lucknow.
This separation from her arts teacher was a big blow to her.
Just when she felt she had found a reason to be happy, all was lost.
Nevertheless, the fire had been ignited within her. She resolved
that even the worst of circumstances could not take away her deep
desire to train herself to paint. There was no money for any formal
training. Thus Sheela knew that self training would be the only
solution if she really wanted to achieve something.
The world of painting was a place where she had the liberty to
shape things, colour things as per her imagination. Be it the pain
of being disabled or of being orphaned, Sheela felt her deepest
sorrows dissolve in the strokes of her brushes. This new found skill
made her confident and kept her motivated. It set her free.
People who came to the protection home expressed their
sympathies but never encouraged her. People found the idea of
foot painting strange and even told her that she couldn’t continue
to paint this way in a sustainable manner. People would discourage
her and tell her that painting would not take her anywhere. But
Sheela took everything in her stride and fought against all odds.
“Most people who visit such orphanages come there with a
sympathetic attitude towards its inmates. They can feed us
for a day. But they never think of their responsibilities beyond
that. Shouldn’t they look at a larger role of aligning us with
mainstream society, of helping us become independent?
Children in such orphanages are not looking for chocolates, they could do better with books. They do not want to be
dependent on others. Rather, they want others to help them
There were occasions when she would feel like giving up.
She saw no hope in life. Her courage would begin to fade and she
would feel restless. But her strong will and commitment to learn
helped her conquer all the challenges.
“Essentially, there was no option for me. My mother had
committed the sin of suicide. I did not want to follow suit.
It was the call of my soul. Painting was my identity which I
did not want to give up.”
Sheela consciously trained her left foot to paint. As she grew
up, so did her desire to become an accomplished artist. She applied
to the Lucknow Arts College.
“I still remember how I craved to get admission in the Arts
College. I thought I won’t be able to qualify the test, yet I
appeared for it.”
Sheela was so pessimistic that she didn’t even check the
admission results for a week. Then, one day, as she casually walked
into the college, people started congratulating her. It was then that
she got to know that she had not just got admission but had in fact,
had topped the entrance test. Her joy knew no bounds.
Sheela wanted to pursue her interest in fine arts. As the
name suggest, fine arts is less commercialised and allows a free
flow of art; whereas commercial art is more tuned towards the
commercial demands of the society and severely constraints
an artist aesthetically. But a squabble between the teachers of
commercial and fine arts forced her to take up commercial art.
Perhaps the teachers wanted to commercialise her disability.
Till that point, Sheela had never bothered about the technicalities
of painting. She painted more from her heart than getting lost in
technical details. Thus, though she obtained a degree in commercial
arts, she never found herself truly immersed in it. It was a newfound
dilemma for Sheela and created more confusion and self doubt.
With her education complete, she went to exhibit her paintings
regularly at the Lalit Kala Academy, Lucknow. Her paintings got
instant recognition and made her a celebrated name in the field of
arts in a short span of time.
Through her paintings, Sheela brings alive the joy as well as
the challenges of womanhood. Most of her work is centred on that
theme. Her paintings are a reflection of her journey – her pain
and struggle. Sheela also paints nature in its true beauty, free of
shackles. Birds are especially close to her heart as they signify
freedom to her. Drawn with innocence, her figures often evoke
feelings close to divinity.
In the last fifteen years, Sheela’s paintings have found a place at
many reputed art galleries and exhibitions all across the country.
Besides several cultural awards, Sheela has also received a national
award for her spirit from none other than Maneka Gandhi.
Sheela got married in 2005. The story of her matrimony is an
equally inspiring one. Sudheer, her husband, is a sculptor and both
of them share a common passion towards art. They both met in
the Lucknow Arts College and a great bond of friendship struck.
Sudheer was touched by Sheela’s zeal and will power. When he
visited her in the women’s home, he was touched by the way she
did all her work with her feet. The two developed a mutual feeling
of love and respect, but both were too apprehensive of expressing
it. Finally, Sheela proposed and Sudheer gladly accepted. Sudheer
feared his mother’s reaction on this so called ‘unequal’ relationship
and did not tell his mother of their marriage for almost a year,
before a local newspaper carried a story on the couple. But contrary to his fears, his mother was proud of his choice and welcomed
Sheela with open arms. Their union is one of deep love and respect
for each other’s talent.
“We have had many challenging moments but our love has
helped us overcome these. My mother-in-law in particular
has been a pillar of strength for me. Her love has given me
the love of a mother and has been my greatest strength in
Sudheer’s love made him see through Sheela’s disability to find
a perfect life partner. In this world where we read of wives being
harassed for dowry, Sudheer and Sheela’s love is inspirational.
The couple is blessed with two children and is leading a life of
“I feel my life has come full circle. Abandoned by my parents,
I wish to shower a lot of love on my children. My husband
and I want to ensure a happy life for them – one where
childhood blooms and blossoms.”
Sheela could have died along with her mother, but she was
destined to live. Sheela could have succumbed to beggary but she
was destined to paint. Sheela could have been alone but she was
destined to be a mother. From being a nobody in the crowd to this
stage where she is not only independent but also a well-known
artist, Sheela has come a long way. Her commitment, strong
resolve, desire to achieve and fighting spirit have helped Sheela
achieve the impossible. Sheela has proven that there is no barrier
to anything you desire. It is your passion that takes you forward.
Sheela can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.