INITIATIVES & PROJECTS

LEELA DANCE COLLECTIVE 

Principal Artists: Rina Mehta, Rachna Nivas, Seibi Lee 

The Leela Dance Collective was founded in 2016 by Rina Mehta, Rachna Nivas and Seibi Lee, senior disciples of legendary kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das, along with leading kathak performers Sarah Morelli and Shefali Jain. It is the only one of its kind Indian-American dance company that brings together leading kathak artists from around the world representing a multitude of voices to articulate a clairvoyant vision for kathak. 

The collective is distinguished by an artistic practice that centers around collaboration and collective creativity and a body of work that is at once grounded in tradition and boldly innovative. In its two year history, the collective has already begun to make an indelible mark on the field of kathak and world dance with its rigorous technique, dynamic choreography, fashion-forward costuming, and sophisticated musical scores. 

The collective has garnered critical acclaim across the United States and internationally for its groundbreaking productions from SPEAK, a collaboration that brings together leading female artists in kathak and tap, to Son of the Wind, a traditional dance ballad based on India’s epic, the Ramayana. With home season performances in San Francisco and Los Angeles along with national and international touring, the collective performs for more than 10,000 people annually. Past highlights include appearances at The Broad Stage, the Green Music Center and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The collective’s productions and performances have been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the Zellerbach Family Fund, the Esper Petersen Foundation, the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation and New Music USA.

THE LEELA ENDOWMENT

Founder: Rina Mehta

The Leela Endowment is the first and only one-of-its-kind self-standing endowment for North Indian classical dance and music. The endowment, a joint initiative of The Leela Institute and the Chhandam School of Kathak, was launched in 2016 and as of December 31st, 2018 has successfully raised $500,000 in seed funding. The endowment aims to secure a dignified and sustainable livelihood for emerging and established North Indian classical dance and music artists. The goal of the endowment is to provide direct support to those cultural ambassadors and torch-bearers that will ensure the preservation and advancement of India’s rich artistic and cultural heritage. 

 

The Leela Endowment has garnered support from major philanthropists in the South Asian American community including the likes of Drs. Ushakant and Irma Thakkar, Dr. Jasvant and Mrs. Meera Modi, and Mr. and Mrs. Prabhu and Poonam Goel. A complete list of contributors to The Leela Endowment is available on The Leela Institute’s website.  

 

The Leela Endowment aims to reach its $1 million goal by December 2019 and begin offering artist fellowships in Fall 2020. The endowment’s ultimate goal is to create a sustainable financial infrastructure for India’s rich artistic and cultural heritage. 

THE FULBRIGHT SCHOLARSHIP

I began teaching kathak to young women in the United States and India when I was a young student of kathak myself. Time and time again, I would observe the distinct shift in consciousness these young women experienced as they progressed in their dance education. This shift is visible at first on the dance floor. A new dance composition is introduced. Their first attempts are awkward and hesitant. Over the course of several days, as we work on the composition repeatedly, their familiarity with the movements and their stamina increase. Eventually, they are able to do what at first glance seemed impossible. As this experience repeated, I can see their mindset shift. Instead of feeling hesitant when new material is introduced, they are excited to learn something new. I watch their confidence, esteem and ability on the dance floor improve day by day.

 

Over time, students become increasingly eager to stay after class – talking, laughing and sharing their stories. Whether in India or in the United States, the girls talk about their dreams to be dancers, teachers and doctors. They talk about their struggles – at home and in school. They talk about what it means to be a girl. Parents report observable changes in the girls at home. They are more engaged in school, express their opinions with greater ease and confidence, and demonstrate better outcomes in school and sports.  

 

In 2013, I had the privilege of conducting a Fulbright research project that aimed to study and document this phenomenon. The project looked specifically at the impact of kathak dance education on facilitating empowerment amongst marginalized young women in Kolkata and Mumbai, India. The project utilized participatory research methodologies to document changes in perceived empowerment – an individual’s subjective view of the power and agency they possess – amongst young women as they participated in a six-month kathak dance program. The project also examined the impact of dance education on self-esteem, academic achievement and social engagements – factors inextricably linked to empowerment. The study shed light on how dance education can be an especially powerful tool for helping young women actualize their potential and expand their possibilities. The study continues to serve as the foundation for curriculum development and educational initiatives in kathak dance. 

UPAJ

Director: Hoku Uchiyama | Producer: Antara Bhardwaj | Executive Producers: Rina Mehta, Center for Asian American Media

Upaj:Improvise, directed by Hoku Uchiyama, showcases two dance forms in seemingly separate worlds: kathak, an ancient dance from North India which has journeyed through Asia, later diverging to influence flamenco in southern Spain, and tap dance, a more contemporary American dance with deep ties to the American South. The show began airing on PBS stations this week.

Still, both Pandit Chitresh Das, a kathak master, and Jason Samuels, tap dance visionary, insist that their journey together for India Jazz Suites is not fusion; it is collaboration. Almost magically, they are able to maintain the integrity of their dense dance histories, while also learning and building off of one another. From this, we can take a second glance at Das and Samuel’s collaboration. Their two storytelling styles give a more fluid, connective shape to the definition of classic. Their collaboration also gives a fresh look at sharing community and dance style, by giving shared fluency to movement, geography and history.

Kathak, as well, is a diasporic dance form. Kathak comes from the Sanskrit word katha, meaning story, and is rooted in North Indian classical training, as well as nomadic culture. Eventually, kathak traveled around Asia, North Africa, and later made its way to southern Spain to influence what is now known as flamenco. This rooting and journey show a connection to modern American tap dance, which also comes from the melding journeys of West African dance, slave expression in the plantation south, and Irish stepdancing. When Das moves his studio to Fremont, California, he and Samuels meet and have the chance to work together – a telling example of the shared community and stories of diaspora.

 

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