Contemporary choreography in Indian dance: International conference and festival  
- Dr Sunil Kothari 
Photos courtesy: Abdulla Khandwani 

February 8, 2009 
Jointly organized by Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Canada and Menaka Thakkar Dance Company, held at Toronto from January 23 - 31, 2009 

Sudha Khandwani, Abdulla Khandwani, Dr Rasesh Thakkar and Menaka Thakkar are names to reckon with in the cultural life of Toronto, Canada. Never-say-die, Sudha Khandwani (nee Thakkar, eldest sister of Dr. Rasesh and Menaka Thakkar),  is known for her dynamism, boundless enthusiasm, sharing her vision for Indian dance, amazing ability to persuade dancers, choreographers, scholars, patrons, government officials in Canada and India and dance lovers, to participate in several conferences and festivals in Toronto, during the last twenty years. She migrated nearly forty years ago from Mumbai, where 50 years ago she had started Kalanidhi organization for teaching, creation and performance of Indian dance. In its Canadian avatar from 1991 as Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Canada, with untiring assistance from her brother Dr. Rasesh Thakkar, former Professor of Economics, York University and Director of India Studies, both the sisters Sudha and Menaka along with Rasesh have contributed in no small measure, a lot to the multi-cultural landscape of Canada. Indian dance has received high profile status with their steady and constant work against all odds. 

Sudhaben, as she is popularly known, has suffered physically, had a fall and has to walk with a walker and is keeping indifferent health. But her spirit is fantastic. Her artistic vision with Raseshbhai, resulted in a watershed conference New Directions in Indian Dance held in 1993 at Toronto. With its unprecedented success, she has never looked back. 

Menaka Thakkar
Thirty years ago, when Menaka Thakkar's dance company was launched in Toronto, Indian dance was considered exotic, esoteric and ethnic. Menaka's Bharatanatyam and Odissi performances generated interest in Indian dance among the Indian Diaspora and Canadians, winning audiences and it received due recognition. It was but natural that coming into contact with other cultures and dance in particular, Menaka also ventured into innovations and sought new directions in Indian dance. Sudha Khandwani's Kalanidhi organization focused on innovations and experimentations, inviting the legendary dancer Chandralekha in 1993 to Toronto and also in succeeding years, presenting her choreographic works. This information is relevant to contextualize the seminar and festival under review. 

This year the festival and seminar were also in the nature of a tribute to Chandralekha, who passed away on 30th December 2006. Menaka was invited to reconstruct the excerpt of Sri as Shakti for her dancers. Chandralekha's principle dancer/kalaripayattu artiste Shaji John came from Chennai to train her dancers in kalaripayattu and Geetha Sridhar from London, a former dancer from Chandralekha's group.  'Sri' was performed in Toronto during the1993 conference. To appreciate Chandra's contribution to contemporary choreography in Indian dance, both the organizations invited Sadanand Menon, a long time associate of Chandra in her artistic creations, designing lighting for her choreographic works and also assisting her in conceptualizing and lending complete support till the end.  Renowned painter, designer, photographer, Dashrath Patel, Chandra's friend from the very beginning of her career in the early fifties, also was invited. From India besides me, dancers/choreographers Aditi Mangaldas, Anita Ratnam and Madhu Nataraj were invited. 
Raseshbhai gave an outline of the conference which focused attention on the questions and issues concerning evolving Indian contemporary dance both within and outside India. The basic concern, though related to Indian dance, would take into consideration recognition of cultural diversity, differing histories, defining what is 'contemporary' and what is 'traditional,' in particular with Indian and also Western dance forms. Also what happens when a classical dance form 'modernizes'; matters of new movement vocabularies; new approaches to choreography; new themes; and new modes of presentation and interpretation. 

On the opening day of the conference on 24th January, at Best Western Primrose Hotel Conference Hall, after the formal inauguration, Sadanand spoke on Chandralekha's journey, screening film 'Sharira' made by Ein Lall, in which Chandra's explorations in dance, her views on New Directions in Indian Dance, excerpts of her contemporary works, rehearsals at her theatre on the Elliots Beach Road (Chennai), her own explanations, and Sadanand's observations are recorded. Her views on feminism, culture, her own response to sculpture, paintings, graphics, icons, philosophy et al are well presented. She has said in the film, that if she were not a dancer, she would have been a painter as she responded to visuals. She had travelled extensively world over, enriching herself with the visuals, the rich cultural landscape, with deep understanding.  Chandra looked beyond Bharatanatyam as she had studied from Elappa Pillai, exploring, expanding her dance vocabulary. In 'Tana Bana,' another film made by Sashi Kumar of Asianet for television, Chandra says, there was a difference in the consciousness of the great masters and her own consciousness. Art for her was not a museum piece. She loved to hold tradition against the sun, not to look at as an art object to be kept in a museum. Life and art were not separate for her. Her approach to Natya Shastra was different. She did not lean on pramana, proof, of what Natya Shastra says. She looked at the text in a holistic way and drew inspiration from it, as it is an amazing text on body, the movements of each part of the body.  

Sadanand Menon, Gundecha brothers
Sadanand spoke of many incidents and how Chandra came to abstraction in dance. In 'Raga,' she first had thought of two Kraunch birds, of Valmiki's Ramayana. Then the narrative is forgotten. May be they are two human beings, what happens when one is coming closer, they are together and she develops the dance. She speaks of the secrets of the human body. And when she choreographed 'Sharira,' she had moved away from Bharatanatyam and evolved a unique dance vocabulary with Shaji and Tishani Doshi who came from the background of Kalaripayattu and Yoga, and studied the movements from Chandra for her choreography.  

Chandra did not believe in having power over her dancers. She did not like dancers diving at her feet to touch her feet as a sign of respect. She did not believe in institutions, as she felt they always 'go to seed.'  She did not believe in bureaucratic powers and said boldly that she existed in spite of them. "If some sort of recognition has come to me during the past ten years," she says in Tana Bana, "it has been a continuous struggle to understand what is life, what is happening to us, to our surroundings. It is not manna from heaven. It has been a constant search." In 'Sharira,' she says of not anger, but indignation, indignation against whatever is not correct or just, she believed in change and said frankly that even if it was comfortable, not to change, one must opt for change. 

She did not approve of fake religiosity, heavy mythological content and looked for newer themes, establishing dignity of the body, the power and poetry in the body. A firm believer in the need for resuscitating traditional forms with contemporary energy, Chandra worked towards exploring the structures of Bharatanatyam, martial art forms like kalaripayattu and therapeutic forms like yoga, to comprehend and interpret the body in a modern sense. Sadanand has brought out a comprehensive work with photographs and details of lecture demonstrations, performances, year wise in chronological manner. The anecdotes he recounted gave insight into Chandra's way of working, facing challenges, taking risks, and not seeking fame and publicity. Both came in droves and she did not care for it. Her search was for something else and if 'Sharira' is any indication, she had indeed moved into another area, beyond dance. I must admit that even though I was close to Chandra since 1956, it was in early 1980s that I started understanding in what direction she was moving. In Brussels, we had met Maurice Bejart, the internationally renowned French choreographer. They had finalized Chandra's work with Kamadev for Avignon Festival also. However, things did not work out as planned, but seeds were planted way back in early 1969 and 1970s about the new directions she was looking for. 

I stayed with Chandra every December for the 'season' since I returned from London in December 1970. When she was rehearsing 'Request Concert' with Rustom Bharucha, she invited me to Chennai and see the work she was doing with dance and theatre. I was privileged to see a number of rehearsals of her new works and I learnt a lot from her about new directions in Indian dance, her understanding and dilemmas. I have always considered our friendship across 50 years as a blessing.  Seeing 'Sharira' at Betty Oliphant Theatre the previous evening, I was startled and spoke about it quoting Kalidasa's sayings; 'Kshane kshane yam navatam upet, tadeva rupa  ramaniytaha,' the work which invests itself with newness every moment that is the beauty of the form. Reams have been written about 'Sharira' and to write more on it would be like gilding the lily. Instead I would like to quote Susanne Linke's response. She said it was a classic work and most meditative in nature. After seeing it, she gesticulated appreciation, but left and did not wait for post performance discussion. Chandra and Susanne understood each other. Often Chandra used to look up to her, write to her, invited her to resolve problems, have workshops and seek clarifications. Linke called Chandra her soul sister. She admired Chandra's originality, questioning attitude and concern for women, honesty and creations.  

Sudha Khandwani, Susanna Linke
Tishani Doshi
'Sharira' indeed is an amazing work. Tishani Doshi, as a yoga expert, said she did not know dance, but understood movement from Chandra when she invited her to work with her, when she was taking training in Kalaripayattu from Shaji. When Padmini Chettur was expecting a baby, Tishani Doshi replaced her. And what tremendous control she has on her flexible body. Turning her face from opposite direction, fondling one leg, looking into it as if it were a mirror, then caressing the leg as a lover, as a child, her slow movements strike us as full of rasa, the flavour. The presentation enthralled the audience. Shaji's rock-like steadiness and perfect balancing, their coming together, two bodies, male and female, coupling, intimacy, depicted so aesthetically with Gundecha brothers' Dhrupad singing and their collaboration has been hailed by one and all. Many were surprised to learn that Tishani and Shaji are not dancers. But what miracle Chandra has achieved through them is indeed fantastic. Sadanand's lighting adds an extra dimension. Within four years, the inhibitions and conservative remarks from the audience seemed to have turned into admiration.  

I was asked to speak on how Uday Shankar and Rabindranath Tagore had worked in the earlier years in the field of dance. I showed a few clippings from the film 'Kalpana' and Manjusri Chaki Sircar's choreographic work, and how they had modernized the dance traditions with their independent outlook as visionaries. What was happening in other dance forms like Kathak and Manipuri, how others were also attempting to explore other dance forms. Chandra's contemporaries and who were simultaneously working seeking new directions got an opportunity to discuss the issues during the historic East West Dance Encounter in Mumbai, organized by Georg Lechner, the former director of Max Mueller Bhavan. Chandra's coming back to dance with her work 'Angika' is a watershed in the history of contemporary choreography in Indian dance. In 1993, Sudha Khandwani organized New Directions in Indian Dance conference and a festival and the same year again Georg Lechner organized another conference in Delhi and focused attention on new developments.  

From India, Aditi Mangaldas spoke about how she broke away from classical Kathak presentations and sought new directions, creating new works but not totally rejecting the strength of her training under Kumudini Lakhia and Birju Maharaj. Since she started feeling suffocated performing the format of traditional solo Kathak and wanted to do what she wished to express herself, she had to move away from tradition consciously. And she has today emerged as an independent thinking choreographer scaling artistic heights. Anita Ratnam spoke about her own journey into dance, her attempts to organize 'The Other Festival' in Chennai for a decade, providing a forum for contemporary Indian dance, the state of affairs, the bureaucratic approach of institutions like Sangeet Natak Akademi and Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the struggle of dancers working on contemporary choreography and late recognition official bodies give to it.  

Dr. Rasesh Thakkar, Aditi Mangaldas
Sunil Kothari, Anita Ratnam

Uttara Asha Coorlawala with the help of illustrations, in nutshell, outlined her journey, early tours in India, participation in East West Dance Encounter, and interest in contemporary choreography in Indian dance. It would have helped a lot if she had shown some of her work using yoga and other disciplines in dance and how she explored new directions in Indian dance. Rajika Puri drew attention to elements of theatre and music, in global context, drawing attention to how Lin Hwi Min and Pina Bausch have extended the boundaries of dance and theatre. Her own experimentations and in particular how as a sutradahri, drawing inspiration from theatre using vachikabhinaya, dance movement, music she has been exploring these aspects in her creations. Excerpts of her outstanding work 'Kali' with power-point presentation were impressive. 

Rajika Puri as 'Kali' in Devi-Malika     
Photo: Richard Termine
Rajika Puri as 'Sati'    
Photo: Richard Termine

From the Canadian side, Menaka Thakkar, Lata Pada, Natasha Bakht and Nova Bhattacharya spoke about their journeys in dance, the categorization of Indian dance, classical or otherwise, how they negotiated the various issues, facing challenges in a multicultural society, as Indian Diaspora and immigrants, establishing their own identities, drawing upon the dance techniques they had studied, trained young Canada born dancers and also others, coming into contact with other choreographers and carving their own niche. Natasha Bakht and Nova Bhattacharya, both trained by Menaka Thakkar have emerged as independent dancers and choreographers and their career graph is most impressive. The issue of funding was also discussed. For dancers working in India, it indeed is important to know how against several odds these dancers/choreographers are working in a foreign land and creating dance works in a context which is fast changing.  

Outside the conference, in an informal discussion, scholar Dr. Devesh Soneji, professor in Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal, observed that one has to bear in mind that the dance traditions, which have been a part of Indian nationalism discourse, are fast losing its relevance to Indian Diaspora abroad.  In the context of the globalization and the weakening of dance tradition, resulting into amateurism, this issue has to be faced squarely. The young generation whether in India or abroad is bound to seek its own path and not depend upon the hoary past. The changes are inevitable. Now independent dancers and choreographers are willing to stick out their necks and do not in particular, seek an approval nod performing in India.  

An interesting intervention was by African choreographer Zab Maboungou speaking of moving differently in African dance. As a Diaspora, her journey as she described was intriguing and interesting. The honesty in her work spoke volumes. Other Canadian scholars and immigrants who participated from different communities, under the title 'When a tradition modernizes' were Brian Webb, who organizes Canada Festival of Dance and Chinese scholar Emily Cheung. 

Dr. Rasesh Thakkar, as Executive Director, thanked all participants for their cooperation and hoped that in the succeeding conference, the timings would be changed. It was obvious that due to snow storm, winter and unpredictable cold climate not only the participation in the conference by the young generation and others but also by the audience in the evening performances was adversely affected. 

Dr. Sunil Kothari, dance historian, scholar, author, is a renowned dance critic, having written for The Times of India group of publications for more than 40 years. He is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine, New York. Dr. Kothari is a globetrotter, attending several national, international dance conferences and dance festivals. He has to his credit more than 14 definitive works on Indian classical dance forms. Kothari was a Fulbright Professor and has taught at the Dance Department, New York University; has lectured at several Universities in USA, UK, France, Australia, Indonesia and Japan. He has been Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific (2000-2008) and is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. A regular contributor to, Dr Kothari is honored by the President of India with the civil honor of Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award.