Obituary: Menaka Thakkar helped bring Indian classical dance to Canada

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Menaka Thakkar, who propelled Indian classical dance into the consciousness of mainstream Canadians, died Feb. 5 in Toronto.

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

“She taught me so many things,” Moore recalled. “It was a nice 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 from Alzheimer’s disease.

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

“Menaka was dedicated to his traditional art form,” says Robert Desrosiers, another artistic collaborator of Thakkar on the contemporary dance scene. “But she had this curiosity for 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 the first students of Thakkar in Canada. Bhattacharya then performed widely across the country and overseas with the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company.

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

Menaka Thakkar was born in Bombay – now Mumbai – and showed a natural affinity for dance from an early age. Thakkar’s older sister Sudha, nine years his senior, had trained in Bharatanatyam and became his first teacher. Thakkar then studied with leading gurus before embarking on a career as both a performer and a teacher.

Meanwhile, their older brother, Rasesh, after winning a Fulbright scholarship and earning a doctorate. from the University of Rochester in New York State, had become a professor of economics at York University in Toronto and encouraged Sudha and her partner to join him in 1971.

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

In many ways, in the beginning, it was an educational mission. Rasesh designed the texts for his dance adaptations of Hindu mythology and often provided explanatory commentary. Audiences, however, were equally drawn to Thakkar by the sheer magnetism of his dance, its rhythmic complexity and expressive beauty.

From the beginning, Thakkar wanted to introduce young people to his dance forms. She has given performances and classes in venues large and small across Canada. In 1974, she opened her own school, the Nrtyakala Indian Dance Academy. Her first graduates formed the core of the company she launched four years later. This allowed Thakkar to present more complex group works that often put a subtle feminist twist on old patriarchal tales.

The work of Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Canada, founded in Toronto in 1988 by Sudha (Thakkar) Khandwani, has increased public awareness of the breadth and vitality of the classical Indian dance tradition. His symposiums and performance festivals, of which Menaka Thakkar was often a highlight, have attracted artists and scholars from across Canada and abroad.

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

His awards and honors included the Governor General’s Performing Arts Lifetime Achievement Award and the prestigious Walter Carsen Award. In March 2019, in one of her final public appearances, Menaka Thakkar was inducted into the Dance Hall of Fame at heritage organization Dance Collection Danse.

CM

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

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