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April 2002

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Menaka Thakkar

Dance is her passion

By Aruna Mallya Gupta

 

Menaka Thakkar, Kitappa Pillai, Janak Khendry in Toronto

 

Her petite frame most definitely belies the sixty years threshold she has crossed over. But the laurels and accomplishments picked up along the way certainly glorify and magnify the persona of Menaka Thakkar. One of the awards was presented to her by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for Performance Arts in 2000.

 

The Toronto Star has called her “Part mime, part musician, part actress, she married all three arts into one”.  Growing up in an artistic atmosphere, her elder sister, Sudha initiated her into the realms of the magical world of dance and remained her mentor.  

 

An exponent of three classical styles, Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi, Thakkar has received training from such stalwarts as Guru Nana Kasar, Guru Kitappa Pillai and Guru Kalanidhi Narayan in Bharatanatyam, Padmabhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra in Odissi and Guru C.R. Acharyalu and Dr. Vempati Chinnasatyam in Kuchipudi. Her dedication to dance won her the prestigious title of ‘Singar Mani” twice, for Bharatanatyam in 1968 and Odissi in 1971.

 

"I was literally one of a handful dancers in India performing in more than one style, but this led me to want to further my explorations into Western culture", she told Paula Citron of Globe and Mail, a Canadian daily newspaper, in an interview published recently, titled - The dance planter.

 

On invitation from brother Rasesh, Menaka came as a visitor to Canada in 1972 to get more exposure to western dance forms. It was at Rasesh’s insistence, that she brought along a costume and it was with his initiative that a performance with 200 invitees was arranged at the University of Toronto. That  performance was so well received, she was motivated to stay on and make Canada her home!

 

Bombay’s loss was Toronto’s gain and Nrtyakala, Menaka’s dance academy was started in 1975. Its primary mandate has been to nurture the authentic traditions of classical dance and produce performers and choreographers and teachers who will preserve, propagate and create new concepts in Indian dance. Simultaneously there is also exposure to Western ballet, contemporary, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and Spanish dance forms so as not to isolate the new generation in their own culture-specific dance pursuits.

 

In 1993, York University awarded Menaka a Doctor of Letters honoris causa in recognition of her contribution as a performer, teacher, choreographer and eminent scholar, and her dedication to her art and the Canadian dance community. She is a professor in the Department of Dance.

 

“Dance was a passion for me. I had decided very early that I would not marry”. For all those personal sacrifices for the sake of her art, Canadian and international audiences  are indeed greatly indebted, for it is the dedication of a few that leave behind a legacy for generations to come.

(Aruna Mallya Gupta is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She has been a contributor to India Today, India Currents and is on the editorial board of Toronto-based Arts Quarterly KALA.) Top

Performance Arts 

Award presented by CBC in 2000

 

 

Menaka Thakkar is an internationally renowned dancer, choreographer and teacher working in three classical forms of Indian dance: Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi. Originally from Bombay, but now living in Toronto, Ms. Thakkar has received numerous performance and choreographic awards in both India and Canada over the last 35 years.

 

She received an Honorary Doctor of Letters (D. Litt) from York University, for her varied contributions to dance and has created extended dance vocabularies arising out of a synthesis of Indian and Western dance forms. In her work, she has broken new ground by successfully exploring nontraditional themes, new musical structures, and innovative use of space in group choreography. This has resulted in her collaborations with such well-known Canadian choreographers as Grant Strate and Robert Desrosiers and a recent nomination for a Dora Mavor Moore award for her work UNTITLED….

 

Performing artist, choreographer and teacher Menaka Thakkar has for over 25 years been at the forefront of the dance scene in Canada. An internationally renowned exponent of Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi her performances are recognized for their technical brilliance and graceful elegance. Founder of the first Indian classical dance company in Canada, she has created a body of work that showcases the virtuosity of classical tradition. Believing that no one dance form has used the body to its fullest, she explores the underlying connections between different dance systems in terms of common human anatomy. Her collaborations with a range of choreographers and composers are at the forefront of what is referred to as fusion choreography.

 

As a teacher she has nurtured a new generation of dancers who perform, teach and create dance in Canada. In 1975 she established Nrtyakala - The Canadian Academy of Indian Dance with the goal of providing classical Indian dance training and promoting awareness and appreciation for arts and culture. Nrtyakala has become a renowned institute, whose dancers are a testament to the enduring legacy Menaka has made in dance in this country.

 

Her pioneering spirit and relentless pursuit of excellence have enriched the arts and culture of this city, and have directly contributed to the diversity of which Toronto is so proud.

 

(Source: Arts Toronto @ http://artstoronto.edionysus.com/awards/ Top

 

 

The dance planter

Menaka Thakkar is devoted to spreading classical Indian styles throughout Canada

 

By Paula Citron The Globe and Mail

 

Menaka Thakkar came to Canada as a cultural pioneer and ended up a dance missionary, planting the seeds of her art through workshops and performances in large and small communities across the country.

 

When she first arrived in 1973, she was Toronto's only professional dancer of Bharatanatyam, the ancient classical dance that originated in the south of India. Since then, her school -- the Nrityakala Academy, which she founded in 1975 -- has produced legions of dancers and teachers who are promoting the art to new generations of Bharatanatyam devotees.

 

"The growth of the classical dance of India in Canada has been like a banyan tree," Thakkar explains. "The banyan is revered in India for both the protection it gives with its umbrella of leaves, and for the way it grows, putting out new shoots -- its own children -- to create new trees that will fill a landscape."

 

When Thakkar's latest show opens at Toronto's Premiere Dance Theatre tonight, it will exemplify the banyan metaphor. Called In the Further Soil, the title is taken from a poem by legendary writer Sir Rabindranath Tagore that describes the symbolic journey of the banyan from a solitary seed to a forest.

 

As well as celebrating Thakkar's 60th birthday (March 3), the production traces her banyan travels, so to speak, of planting South Asian dance in a new country. The cast of 90 includes a range of experience -- from a four-year-old Nrityakala student, to acclaimed dancer-choreographer Nova Bhattacharya.

 

Collectively they will represent Thakkar's personal dance journey in Canada's further soil, demonstrating both training and choreography, the latter including traditional and contemporary examples of the various classical dance styles Thakkar has mastered, such as Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi. It is a show that literally embraces her life and work. Thakkar, however, will not be dancing. "Watching over all these people is enough to do," she says with a laugh.

 

The interview is taking place in a downtown restaurant named after Thakkar's hometown. She was born in Bombay in 1942, the fifth of six children. The Thakkar clan has become something of a cultural mafia since immigrating to Canada. Eldest brother Rasesh, a retired York University economics professor, creates the scenarios and scripts for Thakkar's dance works. He also teaches courses on Indian film. Thakkar calls her brother "the mind behind my work."

 

Sister Sudha Khandwani, an acclaimed actress, dancer, teacher and filmmaker, runs Kala Nidhi, an important presenter of the arts of India, including a prestigious Canadian dance festival that features traditional and experimental South Asian choreographers. A sister-in-law in Calgary operates a dance school, while various nieces and nephews are pursuing careers in theatre and music. Thakkar herself is an adjunct professor of dance at York. Three of her siblings have married outside their Hindu heritage, and the multicultural extended family includes Muslim, Parsee and French-Canadian spouses.

 

According to Thakkar, the wellspring of the family cultural hotbed was her father, a lawyer and theosophist, who believed that the arts were an important component to one's spiritual well-being. Thus the three girls were sent to learn classical dance even though his family did not approve.

 

As much as she loved dance, however, Thakkar also wanted to be a doctor. When it became clear she was torn between the two, her father made her choose. He also made her get a visual-arts degree so she would have a career to fall back on if her body failed her. To this day, Thakkar designs her own costumes.

 

When her father died, Rasesh was teaching in the United States. Rather than going back to India to head the family, he took a job at York University because of its excellent arts programs -- curricula he hoped would entice the rest of the family to immigrate, particularly his sisters. Thakkar was the last to come, reluctant to give up her flourishing dance career and the glowing reviews she was receiving in major newspapers such as The Times of India.

 

Thakkar, however, has never been a dance traditionalist. In fact, her Canadian career is characterized by trend setting fusion collaborations with a host of Western choreographers and composers. What finally convinced her to visit Canada was her interest in commonality of form between the classical dance of India and Western classical ballet.

 

"There is a belief in India that one can master only one style of classical dance," she explains, "and that you will spoil the form by trying to learn another. I believe, however, that since the body is an instrument, I can take the body anywhere as long as I control it with my mind. That is why I decided to learn Odissi, with its lyrical curves and northern rhythms, so different from the stiff angles and low gravity of Bharatanatyam.

 

"I was literally one of a handful dancers in India performing in more than one style, but this led me to want to further my explorations into Western culture. In Toronto, I could find ballet." In fact, Thakkar's research into common principles between the two classical dance vocabularies is considered groundbreaking.

 

Rasesh organized a concert for Thakkar soon after her arrival, and her solo show at the University of Toronto led to an avalanche of offers to teach and perform.

 

"Three things pointed the way that Canada was ready for my missionary work," she says. "First, South Asian parents were begging me to teach their children to give them a link to their heritage. Secondly, if I was going to create group choreographies, I needed to train dancers.

 

"Thirdly, my performances were viewed as exotic folk dance, not as a mainstream art form. It was my duty to elevate the classical dancer of India to the level of a professional artist in the eyes of the dance community." Thakkar points out with pride that, in 1992, the Canada Council finally recognized her craft as professional dance, and the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company receives a yearly operating grant of $30,000.

 

Thakkar has never married: "It was a conscious decision, because a family would have taken away from my complete focus on dance. I have never regretted making that choice. Dance is my everything."  Top