Bharatanatyam in Canada

  • By Shalini Asha Bhaloo
  • April 9 2021
  • @Shalini_A_B
  • Article tells about the struggle of the early Bharatanatyam dancers to get it recognised and its subsequent evolution and popularity.

Om Sri Gurubhyo Namaha


Bharatanatyam is more than just a dance form, it is a lifestyle. In Canada, as a nine-year-old girl, I briefly learned Bharatanatyam from Menaka Thakkar, and now as an age 57 year old grandmother, I learn it from Varnanjali Natyalaya.


Bharatanatyam is a classical Indian dance form which is a unique blend of footwork, expression and flexible body movements in a meditative state. A dancer should also demonstrate skillful steps set to the rhythm of the music to express the meaning and the pleasure of art to the audience.


One concern was the transplantation of Indian classical dance into a diaspora setting is its representation as a form of ethnic folk dance. Bharatnatyam dancers who arrived in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as Menaka Thakkar (based in Toronto), had to tackle this problem.

Menaka Thakkar. 

They insisted that perceiving Indian classical dance with forms such as Irish folk dance or Ukrainian folk dance and projecting it as folk culture was incompatible with its aesthetic and ancient Indian Sanskriti. Instead, they wanted to see art forms such as Bharatanatyam recognized as belonging to the same category of high art as Ballet and Modern Dance. After long and persistent efforts by Indian dancers living in Canada, Bharatanatyam is now acknowledged as classical art by the arts councils and the Canadian dance audience.


Since then, the number of Bharatanatyam and dancers in Canada is increasing. Indian dance companies, such as Lata Pada's Sampradaya Dance Creations based in Mississauga and Mamata Nakra's Kala Bharati in Montreal, produce original works with their students. Also beginning in the late 1960s, Indian-trained Canadian dancer and teacher Anne-Marie Gaston, who performs under the name Anjali, began performing classical Indian dance at venues across Canada, including the National Arts Centre.


Operational funding was given first to Menaka Thakkar as a solo artist in 1993 by the Canada Council for the Arts, and was later extended to her company. This clearly marked the ascension of Indian dance to an altogether new level in Canada.


The recognition of Indian dance as a bona fide system, and the increase in public support for the form due to the efforts of Thakkar, point to the invaluable contribution of this unique individual. Thakkar's bold steps in cultural hybridization were mirrored by the curatorial efforts of her sister, Sudha Thakkar-Khandwani, whose organization Kala Nidhi Fine Arts of Canada was established to disseminate both traditional forms and the genre of new Indian dance into the Canadian artistic mainstream.


In 1993, Kala Nidhi Fine Arts presented a monumental international dance festival, New Directions in Indian Dance, focusing on non-traditional, creative explorations in Indian dance.


The era of contemporary expressions of traditional dance genres was ushered in by Thakkar's work in the late 1980s and 1990s. Since then, radically hybrid forms have been created by the interaction of Indian dance artists with the modern dance community in Canada. 


For example, Hari Krishnan of Toronto, a respected exponent of traditional Bharatanatyam, is also a cutting-edge contemporary artist on the Canadian scene. Trained extensively in modern dance, his work reflects a cerebral, post-modern surrealism. Meanwhile, his performances of traditional Bharatanatyam preserve the last few temple and court remnants of the style, and are marked by the performance of vintage compositions, which he continues to revive and document extensively.


This tendency to reflect back on traditional forms while making contemporary work is characteristic of many Indian dance artists in Canada. On one hand they are seen as representatives of traditional forms and are expected to act as transmitters of culture, yet on the other hand they also engage their creative energies in the formulation of trans-cultural, composite dance vocabularies.


Varnanjali Natyalaya  began its artistic journey in Canada in 2013 and over a span of seven years, it has developed into a flourishing centre of learning. Varnanjali focuses on imparting traditional understanding and practice of Bharatanatyam.


Varnanjali School for Bharatanatyam is dedicated to those who are passionate and appreciate traditional south Indian classical dance.  They prepare students for Grade examinations conducted by the Annamalai University. These exams are of high standard and makes the learners delve deep into the subject.


Bharatanatyam Dancers tribute to Canada                       

On June 30, 2017 over 1,100 Bharatanatyam dancers paid tribute to Canada’s 150 years as they performed in a spectacular red and white maple leaf flag formation in Toronto. To see pictures and video click Here  


“Bharatha Mile 1000 was hosted by Canadian Tamil Arts and Cultural Organization and The Sri Lankan Tamil community both of whom came together to celebrate Canada’s 150 years by combining the traditional dance Bharatanatyam consisting over 1,100 dancers along with 150 singers. Over 40 dance teachers trained the students to participate in the iconic event held at L’Amoreaux Sports Complex, Scarborough. The performance was in benefit of Scarborough Grace Hospital to fund the purchase of a kidney dialysis machine. The performers, who ranged from age five and above, worked tirelessly ahead the event.”


“The event was the brainchild of dance teacher Nirothini Pararajasingham, choreographed by acclaimed Indian dancer and professor Madurai R. Muralitharan.

Over 40 dance teachers were honoured by Dr. Menaka Thakkar who gave away Canada 150th pins, Ethel Doyle, Chronic Disease Prevention and Management at Scarborough Hospital, and MP Gary Anandasangaree who gave away certificates, while lawyer Meleni David handed over trophies.”


Earlier, Meleni David narrated the dance, “150 Canada Day Celebration greetings and Lord Shiva’s “Natiya Samarpanam”.


More 1,100 dancers performed completing the extraordinary feat as their parents, guests, well-wishers cheered for them. The main dance was followed by a performance from the teachers.


Bharatnatyam is flourishing in Canada!

 Photo credit of Menaka Thakkar

  To read all articles by author


Author Shalini is an “Artist” that encompasses Bansuri, Bharatanatyam, Hindustani Vocal, painting and drawing.


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