Dance saved Lata Pada's life, twice. Literally, the first time: She had travelled to India ahead of her family to rehearse for a performance there, so she was not with her husband and two daughters on Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985, when a bomb exploded on-board. Then, dance rescued her again: She relocated to India and spent years working with her guru, dancing, she says, like a woman possessed.
"Dance was that one thing that kept me from being on the same flight as them, and I was literally in my teacher's dance studio when I got the news of the tragedy," Pada said recently from her Mississauga home. "So I just returned to it intuitively, instinctively, instantly, intensely. Because at that moment, that was the only thing I could return to."
So after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (which gave Pada unwanted visual imagery for her own loss), when she heard that artists were among the first back at work in Lower Manhattan, it reaffirmed her view of art as saviour.
"They were back in their studios painting, writing, dancing, creating music, because that is the nourishment that we get from the arts at a time like this. And I was so taken by that and it resonated deeply for me, because I know what it did for me."
It's been 10 years, and there has been a considerable artistic response to 9/11, ranging from literary fiction to country music. In Canada, on a much smaller scale, artists are exploring the Air India tragedy in their work: in opera, poetry and Pada's multimedia work, Revealed by Fire, which premiered a few months before 9/11.
"I never wanted the Air India tragedy to be part of my work," says Pada, 64. But slowly a developing piece about women in Indian society transformed into autobiography. "It became quite clear that the one gnawing question that remained at the back of my mind and sometimes rose to the surface quite consciously was my own condition. ... If I lose my husband, am I still a wife? If I lose my children, am I still a mother? Who am I?"
Renée Saklikar, a Vancouver-based poet, has been reading widely on the question of so-called grief literature. Her interest is professional and personal: She lost her aunt and uncle in the Air India bombing, and two years ago, began devoting herself full-time to poetry, much of it about Air India.
"There's a lot of crap that comes out in the name of self-expression," says Saklikar, 49. "And what I'm trying to do is marry an authentic voice – because these are traumas that happened to me – and not hoity-toity it up, but also create great art." She wants to be taken seriously as a poet, not just a grieving niece. "If you're personally involved, how do you straddle and negotiate that?"
One of her poems, Flying across Canada to Ireland (part of Saklikar's The Canada Project) was shortlisted by ARC Poetry Magazine for its poem of the year award. Another, Air India/Stanley Park, ponders the park's Air India memorial.
Art itself serves as a memorial potentially more powerful – and in some cases with more longevity – than any history lesson. It's the difference between hearing about the crucifixion in Sunday school, and encountering Michelangelo's Pieta. Or reading Elie Wiesel's Night, rather than a textbook account of the Holocaust.
"Whether it's a photograph, a music composition, a piece of dance, a book, poetry, a painting, they are permanent," says Pada. "They serve to continually remind us."
Most of Air India's victims were Canadian, but the tragedy struck Ireland too, as the Irish carried out the horrific recovery effort off County Cork. William Galinsky was running the Cork Midsummer Festival when he had the idea to create an opera based on the event. (He's now artistic director of the UK's Norfolk & Norwich Festival.) He is working with Irish composer Jurgen Simpson, in partnership with the Banff Centre and Vancouver's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, where their opera is scheduled to premiere in early 2013.
"We're trying to find a language through music to communicate this tragedy in a voice that will speak to everyone," Simpson is quoted as saying in the Banff Centre's Winter 2011 Report to the Community.
Pada, a vocal advocate for the Air India families, says performing Revealed by Fire was a "gut-wrenching" challenge. "Every time I started the work, I would be at the side of the stage just trembling, trembling. Because I did not know how my emotions would unfold."
And yet, the show went on. Life, terribly altered, went on.
"I've had people say to me, 'How have you remained so strong, so positive, so generous?' And I've said, 'I've understood the value of dance in my life and hopefully I can transmit that to others.' And if everybody gets out of dance what I got out of it, let it be the one thing they can hold onto, should life ever throw them a curveball."