You couldn’t keep Sudha Khandwani away from dance even if you tried. In her later years, when knee problems made walking difficult, she could still be seen at dance performances across Toronto, using her walker to slowly make her way to her seat. Always dressed in a sari, her hair tied in a bun, a small bindi on her forehead, she kept a keen eye on new approaches in Indian classical dance.
Born Sudha Thakkar in Mumbai, India, in 1933, she started learning bharatanatyam as a young child. She went on to teach the form at a Mumbai university in 1951, at a time when dancing was considered a vulgar art form in India. Also interested in Indian folk arts, she travelled to remote Indian villages to document indigenous life and artistic expressions, along with her creative collaborator Abdullah Khandwani. In 1953, she established Kalanidhi, an institute of fine arts, in Mumbai, bringing together her training in bharatanatyam and her interest in other arts forms to explore stagecraft. She migrated to Canada in 1971 and studied filmmaking at York University. She married Abdullah Khandwani, her long-time partner, in 1978.
Khandwani died of heart failure in Mumbai on November 3, 2016. She had been living there since 2011 due to her failing health, which made it impossible for her travel back to her Toronto home. She was eighty-three.
In her latest avatar, she was the artistic director of Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Canada, a not-for-profit organization she founded in 1988 with a mandate to present the contemporary face of South Asian classical dance at public festivals, while also paying homage to its rich tradition. In that capacity, she sought out dancers such as Nova Bhattacharya, whom she first presented at Kalanidhi Fine Arts’ Navodaya Festival in 1994. Bhattacharya had been one of the first dance students of Khandwani’s younger sister Menaka Thakkar, the well-known bharatanatyam dancer and guru, and winner of a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, who established one of Canada’s first Indian dance schools in 1972.
In 2008, Bhattacharya, by then a Dora-nominated artist, found herself once again in Khandwani’s line of sight. Khandwani called out of the blue to ask Bhattacharya what she was working on. “She called me in September, looking to present something at Kalanidhi in January,” she recalls. “I told her I was working on an idea, and she told me to present it. She had belief and trust in the artist, which is rare.” Bhattacharya had been playing around with some ideas with Louis Laberge-Côté and presented a ten-minute piece. The duo later developed the idea into a fifty-minute duet called Akshongay, which they presented at the 2014 Kalanidhi Festival and which was nominated for four Dora Mavor Moore Awards. As part of the festival, Bhattacharya also took part in some discussions and could see Khandwani online in Mumbai, watching via livestream. “God knows what hour it was in India,” she says. “It was 10am in Toronto. But there she was, in her wheelchair peering into the computer.”
Khandwani’s memorial is December 18 at the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company Studio Theatre in Thornhill, ON. The event will be live streamed, learn more here.