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Sudha Khandwani was ‘a cultural catalyst’ for Indian dance

Renowned dancer and passionate promoter and curator of the various genres Sudha Khandwani

Abdullah Khandwani

From classical to folk, traditional to contemporary, Indian dance animated Sudha Khandwani, a former dancer who became a passionate promoter and curator of the various genres.

Ms. Khandwani was always casting about for new content to present at festivals organized by Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Canada, which she founded in 1988. The festivals, held in Toronto and live-streamed over the Internet, showcased contemporary South Asian dance along with more traditional forms, often featuring top international artists.

Many in the South Asian dance community and beyond considered her a trailblazer who made space for diverse voices on Canadian main stages.

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Even in her later years, when knee problems made walking difficult, she still attended dance performances, always impeccably dressed in a sari. She would use her walker to make her way slowly to her seat in the middle of the house, and along the way she would gently admonish acquaintances she hadn't seen in a long time and inquire about their latest work.

Though she was best known for her work showcasing Indian dance, Ms. Khandwani also had other facets to her life. She was a track and field star during her youth in Mumbai. She also became an actor and a photographer who travelled to remote villages to document Indian folk arts.

Ms. Khanwani died of heart failure in Mumbai on Nov. 3, at the age of 83. She had been there since 2011 because her failing health prevented her from returning to her Toronto home.

In a way, her future was shaped before her birth on Aug. 9, 1933. She was the eldest of six children born to Manorama and Bhanuchandra Thakkar. Her mother, Manorama, was a stay-at-home mother and her father was a lawyer who came from a family of milk sellers. He was a theosophist by philosophical inclination, which brought him in touch with Rukmini Arundale, a well-known theosophist widely regarded as a pioneer who revived the Indian classical dance Bharatanatyam. One of Ms. Arundale's students became Ms. Khandwani's dance teacher.

"My father had decided that if he had a daughter, she would learn how to dance. And surprisingly, Sudha showed a natural inclination for it," says Rasesh Thakkar, one of Ms. Khandwani's four surviving siblings, and a retired York University economics professor.

Sudha had embraced athletics from a young age, becoming the leader of the relay race team at St. Xavier's College, where she studied.

"My father's family did not like any of it," Mr. Thakkar says. "But Sudha was very stubborn."

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She continued studying dance while pursuing a bachelor's degree in philosophy at Mumbai's Elphinstone College. At a time when girls from respectable households did not pursue dance because it was considered a vulgar art, she helped start an academic program teaching Bharatanatyam at R.D. National College. She choreographed many dance dramas and then toured the Indian province of Maharashtra with one of her productions, joined by her younger sister Menaka Thakkar, an accomplished dancer who would later win a Governor-General's Performing Arts Award, in Canada.

"This was a formative period for both Sudha and myself," says Ms. Thakkar, who is artistic director of the Toronto-based Menaka Thakkar Dance Company and founder of Nrtyakala Academy of Indian Dance, which bills itself as Canada's first school of Indian dance.

"When we were touring in the villages … Sudha was not just interested in classical dance, but also the grace and movement of folk art." In 1953, Ms. Khandwani established an institute of fine arts in Mumbai called Kalanidhi, where she brought her diverse interests together.

A serious arm injury in 1965, however, brought a sudden halt to her contributions on stage. At the time, Ms. Khandwani had been visiting India's tribal regions with a young Muslim visual artist, Abdullah Khandwani. He was becoming known for his work as a painter, photographer and filmmaker.

"They were not married, which further annoyed my father's family. Also because he was Muslim," Mr. Thakkar says. "She was going to all these remote areas, no access by road or railway, two camera bags slung on her shoulder, when she stepped over a puddle, fell down and broke her arm. It took them two days to get back to a city where she could see a doctor."

On hiatus from dance, she established a visual-arts organization with Mr. Khandwani, called Ababeel. "They toured India for eight years, documenting tribal, folk and classical arts. They also took pictures of monuments, wildlife. They held many exhibitions," Mr. Thakkar says.

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In 1971, the couple moved to Canada. Mr. Thakkar was then an assistant professor at York University, and helped his sister join the university's film department as a student. Soon CBC commissioned seven short films based on the footage gathered by Ababeel. "They were filler films, three to five minutes long," Mr. Thakkar says.

She directed a 26-minute documentary film called A Tale of Two Mosques, which aired in 1984 on CBC TV's Canadian Reflections, showcase of independent short films. She also married her long-time collaborator, Mr. Khandwani, in 1978.

Returning to the world of dance, she established Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Canada as a challenge to a remark made by a jury member at the Canada Council of the Arts, Mr. Thakkar says. She had been serving as an adviser to the arts body. "Someone said [that] Indian dance is always about older stuff, about a bygone era of gods and goddesses. … Sudha wanted to show another face of Indian dance, without ignoring the tradition."

That meant showcasing the work of dancers such as Nova Bhattacharya, one of Menaka Thakkar's earliest dance students.

"She had a hand in developing so many new voices, including my own," says Ms. Bhattacharya, a Dora-nominated Toronto-based dancer and choreographer, who appeared as an emerging artist at a dance festival in 1994.

"She wasn't content just programming for the Indian diaspora. She was determined to embrace the multiplicity of Canadian art identity. If I can use the word, she was rabid about people coming to new things, for them to broaden the horizons of their artistry. She was a pioneer, a city builder, a cultural catalyst."

Ms. Khandwani leaves her husband, Abdullah; siblings, Rasesh Thakkar, Pragnya Enros, Menaka Thakkar and Rasanidhi Thakkar; brother-in-law, Philip Enros; and sisters-in-law, Viloo Thakkar and Sudha Thakkar.

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