The lights dim for a moment, the music rises to a crescendo and Vinod Thakur, dangling from a rope attached to the ceiling, shimmies down on stage. At first sight he appears to be sitting cross-legged on the floor, but a second later, he pushes himself up using his powerful arms and stands on his hands. It’s only then that the audience realises the 23-year-old has no legs and spontaneous applause erupts through the hall.
Vinod smiles then slowly lifts his right arm and, standing on just one hand, waves to the crowd. Whistles and shrieks of excitement resound. Vinod does a couple of cartwheels and flips, then bounces around all over the stage on his hands before ‘walking’ down a flight of stairs in step with the music. The crowd goes wild, but the performer is only warming up.
Balancing himself on one arm, he executes some amazing dance and acrobatic moves. His awe-inspiring performance would put an able-bodied dancer to shame. At the end of the five-minute show, sweat pouring down his face, Vinod grins the audience gives him a standing ovation.
“I still can’t believe the life I’m living,’’ says the New Delhi resident after wrapping up another brilliant performance in India’s capital. “It’s just crazy. Barely a few years ago, I didn’t even have Rs1,000 [around Dh60] to my name. Now I’m a millionaire.”
Vinod has gained more than a healthier bank account. “I have a lovely house, I’m married to the love of my life and I’m travelling the world ,” he says.
Growing up in Bihar and later moving to Delhi with his family, he never dreamt that he would be able to dance with celebrities on stage as he was born with deformed legs.
“My parents were sad and thought I would never be able to move around or do anything,” he says. But, living with his family – father Raj Thakur, a truck driver, mother Urmila, 46, a homemaker and sister Reema, 17 – in a one-roomed house in Delhi, Vinod was determined to do well and make a mark in life.
From the age of four, he learnt to walk on his hands and soon could walk as fast as his able-bodied friends. His family suggested he use prosthetics but Vinod, whose left leg ends at the knee and the right at the thigh, refused.
“I did try using prosthetic limbs once, but found them difficult and uncomfortable,” he says. His former school teacher, Kamta Chopra, 62, who has known Vinod since he was three, had no doubts that he would be famous. He says, “He could race upstairs on his hands faster than his classmates. He was so positive and cheerful, and willing to work hard to better his life that I remember thinking at the time that this boy would make it big some day.”
And make it big he did. “I got my shot at fame when I appeared in India’s Got Talent, the TV reality show,” Vinod says. So amazing were his skills that he ended up becoming the darling of Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Deepika Padukone – the celebrity guests on one of the episodes of the show. The pair were stunned by his performance. “As a thank-you token, Salman Khan even gave me a bracelet he was wearing,” Vinod says. “I wept tears of joy at the end of that episode.”
Vinod’s path to fame was not easy, however. “Challenges have been a constant since my birth. At school, I faced many stumbling blocks like not being able to walk and run and play like others my age, but I never allowed the negatives to get to me. I love to dance and I would watch music videos on our small TV at home, hoping that some day I, too, would be up there and dancing with the stars,” he says. “But initially I thought I would never be able to because of my condition.”
He was an average student at school and after a pre-university qualification, he did a short technical course in repairing mobile phones. “Because we were poor, I wanted to contribute to the family in some way, so I got a job repairing phones to help pay for my college studies,” he says. He earned about Dh500 a month.
“Because I’d been using my arms for everything, including walking, they had developed very well and I’d wanted to be a bodybuilder,” says Vinod. But it was a friend who suggested he take up dancing seriously. At first Vinod was slightly hesitant. “I love dancing and music but initially I was not sure I would be able to dance like a professional. But I began to practise in earnest,” he says.
In addition to practising his dance moves at home, Vinod enrolled in a local gym to build his arms and upper body as, “I knew I would need to use my arms for all my dance moves”.
Thanks to the encouragement of his friends, he managed around three to four hours of practice every day. He also developed his skills by watching other hip-hop dancers online.
In five months he mastered several tricky dance moves and even choreographed his own five-minute routine. It was then that a friend suggested he audition for the second series of India’s Got Talent in 2010.
“I was very nervous when auditioning because it was really the first time I was going up in front of judges. But I was very positive and in my heart I knew I was good and that I would make it.”
And he did. From the word go, he was a standout contestant and sailed through to reach the semi-final.
Even though he did not make it to the final round, Vinod went on to become a national celebrity with his dance videos going viral. He was soon so popular he was invited to perform at festivals and shows across the country.
“India’s Got Talent was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Vinod. “It transformed my life. Before I went on the show, I was a nobody and suddenly I was a celebrity. I not only began to earn a lot of money, but a lot of respect and recognition as well.”
In July 2012, he saved enough money to open his own dance school, called the Vinod Thakur Dance Academy, near his home in Delhi.
The academy held special sessions for youngsters from impoverished backgrounds, a dream he had nurtured for a long time and it took over his life.
“I was married to my academy,” he says. “There was no place for women or for marriage proposals in my life. I was dedicated to my dancing and business.’’
But the following month 19-year-old Raksha Rathore walked through the doors of his academy and changed his life.
“It was love at first sight,” he confesses. “But I had accepted a long time ago that I was never going to get married. Who would want me? And then I met Raksha and was instantly drawn to her.’’
As the weeks passed, Vinod found it hard to ignore his new student. He says, “Raksha was cute and full of life and energy. She loved to dance but, just like me, she came from an impoverished background, and that made her more determined and ambitious and she wanted to do something with her life.’’
But it took Vinod weeks to pluck up the courage to tell Raksha how he felt. “I am disabled. It didn’t matter that I’d been on a TV show; I felt that no woman would be interested in me,’’ he says.
But Raksha – the daughter of a rickshaw driver – soon expressed her own feelings and love blossomed. “She said she liked my confidence and the fact that I didn’t find my disability a curse. I couldn’t believe a girl like her would even look at me like that,’’ he says.
Raksha, it was clear, was in awe of Vinod’s brave determination in life. She says, “He wasn’t dependent on anyone and I loved his survival attitude… He was such a gentleman and had impeccable manners. For instance, whenever we were at a dancing event, he always made sure everybody else had food before he did. I found myself falling for him.’’
However, their families were not happy about their plans to marry.
While Vinod’s parents thought Raksha was trying to hitch her wagon to his star to help her own career, Raksha’s parents couldn’t bear the thought of her marrying a disabled man.
Vinod says, “My parents suspected she was trying to use my name to build her own career. They were confident she would use me and then leave me once she had made a name for herself. I know they were only concerned for me but I couldn’t listen to them. Their negative thoughts were pulling me down.’’
Of her own situation, Raksha explains, “Every father would like his daughter to marry a person who has enough money to look after his family and, above all, has a perfect body,” says Raksha. “My parents were no different and it saddens me to say that they were against our marriage because of Vinod’s disability.”
Nevertheless, in November 2012, the couple decided to elope and drive to a shrine in Najafgarh on the outskirts of Delhi.
Vinod says, “We married in a secret ceremony with 15 close friends. It was such a special day and all our friends were happy for us, but it was sad not having our parents there. We were overjoyed to be together but we wanted our parents’ blessings so much. We loved our parents and we wanted them to join in our happiness.’’
Eventually, after four days, their parents found out about the wedding and quickly opened their arms to the newly weds.
“I got a phone call and the voice on the other end was familiar, but choking,” says Vinod. “My dad asked me to come home with my new bride and I was welcome again.
“They finally accepted we loved each other and they realised there was nothing they could do to keep us apart. We went home and hugged both sets of parents.’’
Now the couple lives with Vinod’s parents. Thanks to his dancing (since India’s Got Talent he’s earned around Dh350,000 – a huge sum in India), he has transformed the family home into a stunning two-storey.
The couple went on to yet another magical moment when they were contestants on Nach Baliye, also a reality TV dance show, where celebrity couples compete within a variety of categories.
The producers decided to surprise Vinod and Raksha with an onstage wedding in front of celebrity judges – including Bollywood star and contestant on the British version of Big Brother, Shilpa Shetty – and a huge audience. Vinod tells us, “I never expected such a big gift. It was wonderful enough to be asked to join the show, but then they organised a wedding for us.
“It was crazy and we loved it. The second wedding felt like the celebrations we should’ve had the first time round.’’
The couple now performs at dance events at various educational venues in India, as well as parties and festivals at which they deliver motivational speeches. But their passion lies with teaching young enthusiasts at their dance school.
Vinod has also recently returned from Germany where he was in discussions about a possible TV show. And he’s busy speaking to film directors about a potential Bollywood movie covering his transition from a disabled boy in a small village to a celebrated dancer.
The couple hopes one day to have children, but not before they star in a Bollywood movie based on their real lives.
“I have already lived such a colourful existence; my life would be perfect for a film. That would be awesome.
“I’d love to become a father one day, but not yet, we have so many more dreams to fulfil.
“So far all my dreams have come true, so now I need to make sure I live a few more before I have the responsibility of fatherhood.’’
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