I n a newly independent India, dance and theatre were activities with immense social potential and their use was often shaped by the needs of the national integration movement. In those heady years, Mumbai's dance scene was characterised by teachers who travelled from place to place to teach enthusiastic students, many of whom performed more than one style of dance. Menaka Thakkar and her family were a vital part of this frenetic dance activity. At the height of her career, she moved to Canada, performing across that country and training young students at her institution Nrtyakala, eventually setting up the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company (MTDC).
Recently, the MTDC travelled to Mumbai to perform their latest Odissi production, ‘Gita Govinda,' at the NCPA, as part of a multi-city tour of Indian Council for Cultural relations (ICCR). Featuring guest artiste Sujata Mohapatra as Radha, Thakkar's interpretation of Jayadeva's 12th Century epic is multi-dimensional, bringing together the rich aesthetic of Kangra miniature paintings and Kelucharan Mohapatra's inspired choreography of Ashtapadis from the ‘Gita Govinda.' The production is woven together by an English script narrated by her brother Rasesh Thakkar, who translates some of the most captivating passages from the Sanskrit text.
Here, Menaka reminisces about a childhood bursting with dance and the experience of being an Indian dancer in her adopted home, Canada. Excerpts from the interview…
On the early years
My father was a Theosophist and he travelled to conferences of the Theosophical Society. At one such conference, he met Rukmini Devi Arundale, who suggested that he send his daughters to Chennai to learn Bharatanatyam. We were too young to travel to Chennai, but a fellow Theosophist's daughter joined Kalakshetra and became part of the first batch of students. When she visited her family in Mumbai during the vacations, she would teach my eldest sister, Sudha. I was a toddler; I would sit on my mother's lap and watch their classes. I begged Sudha ben to teach me Bharatanatyam. She taught me only thattadavu and stopped, insisting that I had to perfect that step before she continued teaching. It was only after a year-and-a-half that she relented and let me join the dance classes she used to conduct for other students. After a few years, I also began to train under Nana Kasar, who used to work with Acharya Parvati Kumar.
Sudha began to teach at National College in Bandra, where her colleagues were activists and poets like Sadanand Varde and Vasant Bapat. Bapat often wrote the script for the dance dramas she choreographed during that period. When Maharashtra and Gujarat were bifurcated in 1960, we toured the State, performing with Rashtra Seva Dal, the only two Gujaratis in a troupe of Maharashtrians.
On learning Odissi
In 1958, Sudha and my father saw Indrani Rahman perform Odissi at Rang Bhavan and came back mesmerised. We lacked mobility and could not think of going to Orissa and studying dance. It was only in 1964, when Kelubabu brought a troupe from Kala Vikash Kendra to perform in Bombay that we were able to establish links with Odissi. When he heard that a Gujarati girl wanted to learn Odissi, he was happy and immediately agreed to come to Bombay for a month and teach me. But on returning to Orissa, he took ill and sent Ramani Ranjan Jena instead. Nana Kasar was upset when I started learning Odissi, because he was concerned about the mixing of styles. Every Sunday, he would sit in on my classes with Ramani Ranjan to ensure that I didn't forget the difference between the two styles.
On ‘Gita Govinda,' her tribute to Kelucharan Mohapatra
In the seventies, my brother Rasesh came across an exhibition of Kangra paintings based on the ‘Gita Govinda.' Dance is a complete art; hence it is through dance that we decided to work on the text, drawing heavily on its intricate visual and poetic fabric. With frantic costume changes and plenty of Velcro, I performed a two-hour-long solo work based on Guruji's choreography of various Ashtapadis. We used three screens and four projectors to create a backdrop of Kangra miniatures, with Rasesh running backstage from screen to screen, almost like an Indonesian shadow puppet! I performed this for almost 15 years, even travelling to Europe with it.
When Guruji passed away in 2004, I wanted to do something in his memory and we decided to revive ‘Gita Govinda' with dancers from my company. Inspired by the Kangra miniatures, Canadian designer Cylla von Tiedemann created a complete visual design.
On dancing in Canada
I first travelled there on a visitor's visa. In a few days, I had given my first performance and had been offered four full-length performances and a teaching assignment at York University. In India, I had a flourishing career as a performing artiste, but I felt deprived of the joys of teaching. Back in the seventies, multi-culturalism was the buzzword and the Canadian Government was genuinely welcoming and supportive. Even then, it took us almost two decades before we could make Indian dance a part of Canadian arts policy under a Diversity Dance scheme introduced in 1993.
I need funding to invite teachers from India, commission choreography, or to create costumes and sets. My needs are slightly different from those of other Canadian dance companies, and the grants we get must take that into account.
We used three screens and four projectors to create a backdrop of Kangra miniatures...