Every other year, an investigation into Indian dance comes to Toronto, and at the heart of the matter is the remarkable Thakkar family.
Talk about a shared family passion: Sudha Thakkar Khandwani, 75, is artistic director of Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Canada, an organization that promotes and nurtures Indian dance in North America. Her sister, Menaka, 65, is the artistic director of the oldest Indian dance troupe in Canada, the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company. Their 73-year-old brother, Rasesh Thakkar, is a retired York University economics professor, but he helps his sisters behind the scenes with their creations, conferences and festivals.
This shared passion is on display this week as the Contemporary Choreography in Indian Dance: International Conference and Dance Festival - a joint presentation of the Kalanidhi organization and Menaka Thakkar Dance Company - continues.
But why contemporary Indian dance as a focus? As the siblings point out, previous festivals have explored in detail the eight classical Indian dance styles. Examining contemporary Indian dance was the logical next step.
"I spent six months in India in 2007 and it was heartwarming to see the explosion of young choreographers trying new things. I wanted to give them a platform to show their creativity," Sudha says. "It's also important to see the work of choreographers both in India and abroad in the context of the trends, aesthetics and the spirit of modernity of the 21st century."
The centrepiece of the event is a tribute to the controversial Chandralekha (1928-2006), the great iconoclast of Indian dance. A feminist, activist, provocateur, secularist and crusader, Chandralekha lived openly with her life partner, writer and lighting designer Sadanand Menon, and never married him.
She also spent her life challenging classical dance traditions by incorporating yoga and martial-arts movements. Her works were overt manifestations of sexuality, sensuality and spirituality, which she believed were inextricably linked together; she used dance to celebrate the human body rather than glorify religion. (Two Chandralekha choreographies are being performed at the festival, including Shakti, on Jan. 29.)
Says Menaka: "Many years ago, I began to see similarities between the different classical Indian dance styles, which grew into the recognition of the commonalities I found between Indian dance and ballet, for example. I could see my thinking in Chandralekha's works - the way she broke up classical vocabulary to make new steps, her radical costume designs that gave dancers freedom. Yet there was still an "Indian-ness" about her dances in terms of social themes and colour palette."
In many ways, Menaka adds, the Chandralekha legacy is "a starting point for any discussion of Indian contemporary dance" - a discussion that includes questions about what makes Indian dance modern as opposed to traditional, and how Indian dance fits into Western forms of dance.
"With the coming of independence, there was a regeneration of the classical arts, but seen within the definition of our modern identity. Then we had to ask: What is traditional and what is contemporary? Is contemporary fusing with Western forms? Is it organic evolution? Is traditional inferior?" Rasesh says. "At the conference, we hope to delve into the social and political history, as well as the philosophical visions, that drive contemporary art forms."
As for where the Thakkar siblings get their shared interest in such questions, well, you could say they were born to it: Although their father was a prominent Bombay lawyer, Sudha says his motto was: "Live life fully and follow the arts." Needless to say, his children have taken that advice.
Performances run to Jan. 31 at the Fleck Dance Theatre.