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Obituary: Menaka Thakkar helped to bring Indian classical dance to Canada


Menaka Thakkar, who thrust Indian classical dance into the consciousness of mainstream Canadian audiences, died Feb. 5 in Toronto.

“Menaka was the brightest star in our dance universe,” contemporary dance luminary Claudia Moore said. Moore collaborated with her on “Duality,” a co-choreographed and performed duet that unfolded as a conversation in movement between two distinct dance traditions in 1997.

“She taught me so many things,” Moore recalls. “It was a beautiful exchange.”

Friends and admirers of Thakkar, one of Canada’s most respected and influential dance artists, will gather via Zoom on Thursday March 3, which would have been Thakkar’s 80th birthday, to share memories and tributes. Thakkar died of complications arising from Alzheimer’s.

Although acclaimed as a brilliant exponent of three major styles of Indian classical dance — Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi — Thakkar was eager to experiment, to push the boundaries of tradition and to investigate other dance forms.

“Menaka was dedicated to her traditional art form,” says Robert Desrosiers, another of Thakkar’s artistic collaborators from the contemporary dance scene. “But she had this curiosity about so many other forms. She wanted to feel connected to a larger dance community.”

Nova Bhattacharya, founder-director of Nova Dance and organizer of the March 3 tribute, was among Thakkar’s earliest students in Canada. Bhattacharya later performed widely across the country and abroad with the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company.

“Menaka had an omnivorous approach to movement,” says Bhattacharya. “She liked mixing it up. And she created an important body of work that has had a major impact on the Canadian dance scene.”

Menaka Thakkar was born in Bombay — today’s Mumbai — and displayed a natural affinity for dance from an early age. Thakkar’s oldest sister, Sudha, nine years her senior, had trained in Bharatanatyam and became her first teacher. Thakkar later studied with leading gurus before launching a career as both performer and teacher.

Meanwhile, their oldest brother, Rasesh, after winning a Fulbright scholarship and earning a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in New York state, had become an economics professor at Toronto’s York University and encouraged Sudha and her partner to join him in 1971.

Before Thakkar’s arrival the following year, Indian classical dance had few local practitioners and little prominence. Thakkar was determined to change that and to establish Indian classical dance on an equal footing with Eurocentric dance forms.

In many ways, in the early days, it was an educational mission. Rasesh devised the texts for her dance adaptations of Hindu mythology and often provided explanatory commentary. Audiences, however, were as much drawn to Thakkar by the sheer magnetism of her dancing, its rhythmic complexity and expressive beauty.

From the start, Thakkar wanted to introduce her dance forms to young people. She gave performances and classes in venues large and small across Canada. In 1974, she opened her own school, the Nrtyakala Indian Dance Academy. Its early graduates formed the nucleus of the company she launched four years later. It allowed Thakkar to present more complex group works that often gave a subtle feminist twist to ancient patriarchal tales.

A broader public awareness of the range and vitality of the Indian classical dance tradition was augmented by the work of Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Canada, founded in Toronto in 1988 by Sudha (Thakkar) Khandwani. Its symposia and performance festivals, of which Menaka Thakkar was often a highlight, attracted artists and scholars from across Canada and abroad.

Each of the siblings in different ways helped establish a prominent place for South Asian dance culture not only in Toronto but across Canada. Sudha died at age 83 in 2016. Rasesh died just weeks before Menaka on Jan. 19 at age 86. Menaka’s death marks the close of an important chapter in Canadian dance history.

Her awards and honours included the Gov. General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement and the prestigious Walter Carsen Prize. In March 2019, in one of her last public appearances, Menaka Thakkar was inducted into heritage organization Dance Collection Danse’s Dance Hall of Fame.

MC

Michael Crabb is a freelance writer who reviews dance and opera performances for the Toronto Star.

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