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In Memoriam – Menaka Thakkar, March 3rd, 1942- February 5th, 2022
Menaka-di, as she was known to her many dance students, was a giant in the Canadian dance world. Arriving in Canada in 1972 from Bombay, she was a classically trained dancer in three techniques, Bharatanatym, Odissi and Kuchipudi. Her early performances in Canada mesmerized audiences. She was virtuosic in her execution of nritta or pure dance while also being an incredibly moving performer of abhinaya or expressional dance. Her dances took audiences on an unforgettable journey. She compelled a Eurocentric Canadian dance community to sit up and take notice of her art.
Menaka-di was a brilliant and beloved teacher. She loved to teach dance and thought of it as her calling. In her early days in Canada, she travelled every weekend training young dancers from British Columbia to Newfoundland. She saw something of value and beauty in every child that she taught. With her dance academy, Nrtyakala, she trained thousands of students in Ontario, instilling in them not only a love for dance and art, but fostering a rich sense of pride and self-esteem. She brought living legends from the classical dance scene in India to her students and to Canada including Gurus Kalanidhi Narayanan, Kitappa Pillai, Vempatti Chinna Satyam and Kelucharan Mohapatra. Her conviction and commitment to living life fully as an Indian dancer in Canada nourished South Asian children in a world that was not always easy to navigate.
The Menaka Thakkar Dance Company,comprising primarily of dancers she had trained, performed her many original dance works, across Canada, the United States, India, Singapore and Japan. Her classical choreography was sheer genius. She took well-known Indian epics and reinterpreted them from a profoundly personal perspective. Her imaginative use of space, her rhythmic ingenuity, and her persuasive desire to convey stories to each and every person she met will always be remembered. She was a pioneer in cross-cultural collaborations working with some of Canada’s finest choreographers to explore and innovate in new genres of dance. Menaka-di’s work was pivotal in arts councils abandoning exclusionary eligibility criteria that only recognized ballet and western contemporary dance forms.
Her accolades were numerous including an honorary doctorate from York University, the Canada Council’s Walter Carsen Prize, the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award, and induction into the Dance Collection Danse Hall of Fame, to name but a few. She was without a doubt a national treasure. Her passing, along with the recent death of her brother, supporter and co-creator, Rasesh Thakkar (Rasesh Bhai), marks the end of a vibrant era in Canadian dance. She will be dearly missed, but her long legacy lives on in the generations of dancers she trained and mentored. Menaka-di’s impact on my own life has been immeasurable. The first time I saw her perform, I was spellbound. She had an ability to inspire awe in young people and she had me hooked from the age of six. I studied with her for over twenty years, I taught in her school, I toured with her company nationally and internationally, and I eventually began to create my own works encouraged and energized by the love of choreography that she generated in me. She was a teacher, mentor and mother to me demanding the highest standards of excellence, but also providing comfort and understanding in challenging times. Her presence in my life has been a profound gift.