February was certainly a very exciting month for me, as it brought an opportunity to interact regularly with Sannidhanandan. A reality show finalist and renowned playback singer, Sannidhanandan was born with a cleft lip and had to wait twenty one years before he was able to get surgery for it. Today, Sannidhandan or Sanni, as we fondly call him now, is a walking example of how corrective surgery can transform lives.
His story takes us to rural Kerala where he was born, with partial cleft lip and palate, in a religious family. His family accepted his condition as God’s will and decided that there was not much they could do about it. Life changed when one of Sanni’s acquaintances read about the cleft surgeries that were being performed by Dr Mustafa in Mangalore. Dr. Mustafa is a Smile Train partner surgeon today, but this was a year before Smile Train came to India. Sanni and his friend managed to travel to Mangalore, where the surgery was performed for a nominal fee. Following the surgery, Sannidhanandan speech was restored and his suppressed singing talent came to the fore. He started performing in public and began to learn classical music. In 2007, he participated in a reality show and the rest is TV history. Through sheer determination and the will to succeed, Sanni became one of the top 10 finalists.
But he hasn’t forgotten his difficult journey to get to that position. In February, Sanni visited a Smile Train centre in Thrissur, and interacted with the children and hospital staff there. He was so overwhelmed by the experience, that he decided to celebrate his birthday with the children.
And so Sanni spent his birthday on March 5 with children suffering with cleft lip and palate condition at the Jubilee Mission Hospital in Thrissur, a partner hospital of Smile Train. He handed out gifts to the children and encouraged their parents to get them operated quickly. He shared his own story, sending a powerful message of how critical timely interventions are. He also enthralled everyone — patients, parent, surgeons and nurses alike — with his beautiful voice.
I also had a chance to meet Sanni’s family before the event. His mother talked about how much it meant to her to celebrate Sanni’s birthday at the hospital with other cleft children and parents. She recalled how she was known as the mother of murchunda (child with cleft) in her village before Sanni’s surgery. Now the same people call her the mother of the ‘professor of music’. Her story moved me and provided a strong reminder that cleft impacts families as much as it does individuals.
It was one of those moments when I felt proud once again to be associated with Smile Train’s program. To have an opportunity to change societal mindset and to transform lives is both a responsibility and a privilege. We would like more Sanni’s to come forward and encourage children born with cleft to lead a productive life.
Leela Imam is a Communications professional with over a decade and a half of work experience in various industries. Before joining Smile Train, she headed a leading PR Agency in Bangalore and worked as Program Manager with British Council. After working in the corporate world for over 15 years, she is determined to bring a smile on every child’s face and expand Smile Train’s footprint in South India.
* The views expressed are those of the author. They may or may not reflect Smile Train's position.