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The Menaka Thakkar Dance Company's production of Pattano Pradesh or Queen of Spades on stage at Premiere Dance Theatre in Toronto, April 23, 2004.Handout

Throughout their lives, siblings Menaka and Rasesh Thakkar lived up to their names. Like her namesake apsara (a celestial being from Hindu mythology), famous for disturbing the deep penance of a venerable sage with her beautiful dance, Menaka lit up any stage on which she performed. Rasesh, whose name loosely translated to “lord of emotions,” was a scholar who conceptualized and wrote elaborate scripts for Menaka’s dance productions, diving deep into philosophical and dramatic texts, translating them for the stage. Collaborators inside and outside the dance studio, Rasesh and Menaka exited the stage of life almost in tandem.

Rasesh Thakkar died of natural causes at his home on Jan. 19 at the age of 86. Menaka Thakkar died at a long-term care facility owing to complications from Alzheimer’s disease on Feb. 5, at the age of 79. Predeceased by their sister Sudha Khandwani and brother Rashmi Thakkar, they leave their sister Pragna Enros, brother Nidhi Thakkar and nephews and nieces. Having dedicated their lives to the arts, neither Rasesh nor Menaka married or had children.

Rasesh and Menaka Thakkar were born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India to Bhanuchandra and Manorama Thakkar. Born on Feb. 24, 1935, Rasesh was the eldest son among six siblings. Born on March 3, 1942, Menaka was the youngest daughter. In many ways, Rasesh laid out the path followed by most of his siblings, while Menaka built the foundation to prepare generations of dancers who were either trained by her or performed in one of the many dances she choreographed. She was a passionate advocate and ambassador for various classical Indian dance forms, as well as folk dances, and always delighted in introducing them to new audiences.

The Thakkars came from a family that sold milk, originally based out of Surat, a large city in the Indian state of Gujarat. Bhanuchandra Thakkar, however, was intent on pursuing higher education and eventually became a lawyer, setting up his legal practice in Bombay. The Thakkar patriarch was also a theosophist, and nurtured a keen interest in Indian arts and culture among his six children.

From an early age, Rasesh could be found reading philosophical tomes, while Menaka displayed an affinity to dance even as a child, says Ms. Enros, their sister, 82, a former library technician at Carleton University, now retired.

“He was a brilliant student. I mean not just intelligent, or that he came first in class,” Ms. Enros says, adding that he had a remarkable proficiency in Sanskrit, a classical Indo-European language akin to Latin. “The principal of our high school was a Sanskrit scholar and Rasesh would converse with him in Sanskrit.

“We used to get mad, you know, because we were also good students – but we could never be as good as him. But he always helped us out. … We had the privilege of being brothers and sisters of Rasesh.”

As for Menaka, Ms. Enros can’t remember a day when her younger sister wasn’t dancing. Because of his theosophist connections, their father was well aware of the work of Rukmini Devi Arundale, renowned for reviving the Indian classical dance Bharatnatyam and founding Kalakshetra, one of India’s most prestigious dance schools. (It must be noted that Ms. Arundale’s legacy has been contested in recent years for not giving due credit to the Devadasi tradition.)

A neighbour of the Thakkar family, Anjali Hora Mehr, travelled to Kalakshetra, studied with Ms. Arundale and became a famous teacher in her own right upon her return. Ms. Hora Mehr taught Sudha Thakkar, who taught her younger sisters, Pragna and Menaka. Menaka went on to seek out other gurus in the three classical Indian dance forms that she ultimately learned: Bharatnatyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi.

“For Menaka, dance was her life,” Ms. Enros says. Her arangetram (debut performance) took place in November, 1964, at the Tejpal Theater in Mumbai. Rasesh, who had studied economics and law at the University of Mumbai, had left for the University of Rochester, New York, in 1963 after receiving a Fulbright travel grant and full scholarship. Their father had died in January, 1964. The remaining Thakkar siblings happily pitched in to organize Menaka’s arangetram, which was a grand affair, Ms. Enros says.

“It was a prestigious theatre, and the whole theatre was full with friends, relatives and lots of [Menaka’s fellow] dancers,” she says.

While Menaka started a fledgling career as a dancer and teacher in Mumbai, Rasesh embarked on an academic career in Canada. After earning a PhD from the University of Rochester, Rasesh got a job as a professor of economics and later taught Indian Studies at York University in Toronto from 1969 to 1999. His siblings followed him to North America.

“After our father died, Rasesh took on the responsibility of being the head of the family. He was almost like a second father to us,” Ms. Enros says. “First I came to Canada to do my PhD at the University of Toronto, then [eldest sister] Sudha, then Menaka in 1972.”

Before Menaka’s arrival in Toronto, Rasesh had been involved in organizing Indian dance performances for the city’s growing Indian community, as well as cultural events at Toronto universities with Ms. Enros’s help. Even then, it was Rasesh who first took to the stage, explaining the performance that the audience – often made up of people who had never seen Indian classical dance before – were about to see.

After Menaka landed in Toronto, she started headlining the performances, and soon established the Nrtyakala Academy of Indian Dance. She travelled across the country, from St. John’s and Regina to Burnaby, B.C., performing traditional repertoire at venues ranging from small stages in libraries to large concert halls. She trained at least four generations of South Asian-Canadian dancers, besides collaborating with dancers from other disciplines. She established the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company in 1978.

“I joke that my parents basically indentured me to Menaka,” says Nova Bhattacharya, 53, artistic director of Nova Dance. She started learning as a seven-year-old and continued training with Menaka for another decade. “My parents basically took me to the dressing room after one of her shows, and thrust me forward and said, ‘This is your first student.’ … I travelled all over Canada with her, to Europe. I was often the opening act for her performances.”

For Ms. Bhattacharya, one of Menaka’s most memorable performances took place at the Brigantine Room at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. The setting was informal, but Menaka, outfitted in an elaborate costume, danced as if it was the mainstage.

“I remember it was like a sea of white faces, there was not a single brown or black face [in that audience],” Ms. Bhattacharya says.

“The way she drew people in, how people connected with her. I remember being in the moment, thinking: This is what being an artist is about. To reach people who have nothing in common with you, who have no idea what this woman in a sari is doing in a corner where the potters’ wheels are.”

As much as she was rooted in Indian classical dance forms, Menaka always sought to collaborate with others. Contemporary dancer Claudia Moore remembers that it was Menaka who reached out to her to work on Duality in 1997, a 25-minute work that brought their two art forms together on stage.

“I remember the very first time I saw Menaka perform. It was over 40 years ago … and her energy was dazzling. I can see her in my mind – still. The brightness of her expression and her exquisite technique. The storytelling that came from her hands and eyes and feet – every part of her body,” she says.

“[Duality] is another example of her curiosity as an artist, and her open-mindedness. She was interested in contemporary dance and reached out to me to ask if I would like to do a duet. I was so honoured and thrilled. … I still remember some of the hand exercises that she taught me, and I would create little phrases and teach those to her. We were exchanging in this way and we created this piece that was like a conversation between our two ways of moving.”

Menaka knew how to articulate elements of Indian classical dance and choreographic concepts to students who may not have immediate access to their cultural references, says Neena Jayarajan, 41, who started out as a student and taught at Nrtyakala for more than 20 years. She then served as an associate artistic director of the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company for six years.

“For example, when we had to show a woman churning butter – the whole concept was lost on us because none of us had actually seen those [Indian buttermilk churns]. She would paint a picture, not just of the object but the whole scene,” Ms. Jayarajan says. At the same time, she was an inquisitive choreographer, who drew inspiration from life around her. In one instance, while composing a group piece, featuring women stringing garlands, Menaka mentioned an unusual source of inspiration. “A clock at Terminal 1 at Pearson International Airport. The multiple hands going in different directions at different times gave her the idea for how we should stand and move in a cluster. And it immediately made so much sense.”

Meanwhile Rasesh was a fountain of knowledge, who sparked ideas or gave context to Menaka’s choreography, Ms. Enros says. Rasesh was also instrumental in setting up the artistic institutions that came to bear Menaka’s name.

“He wrote the grants, he wrote the scripts, he was the backbone,” Ms. Enros says. “He was never in the spotlight. And he was fine with that.”

Together Menaka and Rasesh opened new doors for the next generation of dancers and choreographers who were not pursuing dance forms such as ballet or contemporary dance, Ms. Bhattacharya says. The Thakkars applied for funding Indian classical dance from the same pot of money allocated to Eurocentric traditions, and won that battle with the granting agencies.

“[Menaka] organized her performances downtown at – what was then – Premiere Dance Theatre, and I think it was a calculated move on her part,” Ms. Bhattacharya says. “She invited officers from the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council [to showcase] – ‘This is the level of training I’m producing.’ So everything that she did was calculated and strategic, in service of this larger goal of having equality.”

For her work and dedication to the craft, Menaka received several awards, including the Canada Council’s Walter Carsen Prize, the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement in dance and an induction in the Dance Collection Danse Hall of Fame.

“They dreamed big and they always tried to make their dreams into reality,” Ms. Jayarajan says of the Thakkar siblings’ artistic collaborations. “There were no limitations in their minds, or the limitations could always be overcome somehow.

“The rigour [Menaka] demanded as a teacher, and then as a choreographer – I haven’t been able to find that kind of magic since then. … To be honest, as students, as company members, we thought that magically, they would live forever. Not acknowledging that, or facing that, I think is the sad part.”

The deaths of Rasesh and Menaka Thakkar have been especially hard on the dance community that formed around them. COVID-19 restrictions prevented some from paying their last respects. Instead, tributes have been pouring in through social media. Last rites for the siblings were performed with just the immediate family present, Ms. Enros says.

“I dressed Menaka up just like for a performance. I applied that big red [bindi] on her forehead with black outline, how she always wore it. A flower in her hair … and [a] dance costume. So she’s ready to start dancing, wherever she goes.”

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