Leela Institute for the Arts, Founder, Rina Mehta

One of the new initiatives we are most excited about in 2015 is the creation of the Leela Institute for the Arts in the Los Angeles area, founded by our own LA branch director, Rina Mehta.  The Los Angeles branch of the Chhandam School of Kathak dance was founded in 2008.  But, starting in 2015, the branch will formally become a new non-profit organization, and an integral foundation of the newly formed Leela Institute for the Arts.  We had the chance to speak with Rina Mehta; read ahead for more details on the transition and vision for the Leela Institute!

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey in LA so far, and where the branch is headed?

A: We launched the LA program in 2008.  Officially though, we were doing work in the LA area since 2005.  My family is here in LA and through many community connections we worked to partner with Indian organizations to present performances. [We presented] either Company members or productions as of 2006.  Our work was to co-present performances that helped raise awareness in the community about what kathak dance is.

With the support from the James Irvine Foundation, we created a branch in LA.  We started small, continued to do performances- both on a community and large scale level and grew step by step.

From 2008-2010 I commuted to LA, teaching every other weekend.  Ritu Mathur was the other key person instrumental in maintaining the branch and getting LA up and running.  In 2010 I moved to LA and started working full time. Today, we have classes in 3 locations across the Greater LA area, with 65 students- a very dedicated student body. The level of the dance in the school is increasing.  We have continued to do performances and partnered with cornerstone organizations to present very high level artistic productions.  The last year we partnered with Dance Camera Film and presented Upaj, and partnered to present Pancha Jati.  We have been able to have a really major impact.

As we began to think about the growth of the school, one of the things that we needed was funding. Because our 501(c)3 was based in SF, we weren’t eligible for funding from local government organizations and given how much potential there is for growth, engagement needs to be grounded in the local and unique LA community.

Q: What is your vision for the LA school, and what do you think it will look like?

A: It’s a collective vision, not just mine. I have been in conversations with others and the vision is responsive to what the community needs.  The school is at the top on our list. And we are making sure that we are providing the highest caliber education possible to the next generation of kathak dancers.  Guruji’s guidance has provided us with a path that we can follow.   We would like to grow the school, establish and maintain a high standard of our school in the dance for sure, and then expand the scope of our education.

Q: Which program are you working to develop first?

A: We are working to solidify and expand the Kathak program. We are now beginning to integrate musical education where possible.  [We have] workshops, and are working on integrating music education into the curriculum.  Curriculum development is a topic that all of the branches are working on. We are all a part of an ongoing global conversation.

Q: Where did this inspiration/idea come from?

A: From my experience as a teacher; as well as the training that I received from Guruji.  His students have been successful because of the cross education and training in music and language. Our goal is to provide really high caliber education.  There are so many slokas that we learn and understand. How do you teach a bhajan to a student when they don’t speak the language and can’t speak the words they are reciting?   I talked to the community and realized that these students WANT to learn and are enrolled in language classes so that they can understand the art.  The response and feedback from the community has been inspiring.

Q: What has Dadaji’s involvement been through this process?

A: I think we’re very lucky that there is a precedence with Gretchendi starting a school in Boston, and Joanna in Toronto. It’s a natural evolution for Chhandam.  Guruji has been involved in this process since day 1, he was the one who told me to start a branch in LA.   He even came up with the new name for the institution.  I don’t think it’s a matter of involvement but rather of evolution and where things need to go.  One of the things that we all believe is that a person’s education in kathak is best served by getting as much direct exposure to and training from Guruji himself and other senior disciples.  To that end, it is our commitment to provide the best learning environment and opportunities to learn from Guruji as possible.

Q: How will you facilitate residencies/exchanges?  What types of exchanges are you planning?

A: As soon as we are able to, we are looking forward to hosting residencies with Guruji, Gretchen, Seibi, Charlotte, and also more junior teachers like Seema and Rachna.  We would like to take our students, travel and visit other locations and participate in their programs.

Q: How did you come up with the name of the institution?

A:The name is the Leela Institute for the Arts.  I was in conversation with Guruji and my mom, as we were playing around with the name, my grandmother came up.  The conversation came about and I was talking to my mother, and what an incredible influence the women of my grandmother’s generation have had. The people I was thinking about are my grandmothers and Guruji’s mother. I was thinking about how I wanted the spirit of these women to be an integral part of the organization, and I want to honor that lineage as well as the legacy of the dance. I discussed that concept with Guruji as well.  My grandmothers’ names are Rukmani Devi and Leelabati. Leela also means divine spirit of play, and is associated with the arts. We naturally found ourselves at Leela as the name. We definitely wanted it to be a group, so we opted for the Institute for the Arts. The important piece of the story is we were looking for ways to honor these amazing women who are pioneers and visionaries who have contributed so much to our wellbeing and livelihood.

Q: How can we be involved?

A: We would love to have all of you come and visit! We would be honored for people to come see our school, spend time with our community, dance with us, and drink with us.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

A: I began studying at Chhandam and with Guruji in 2000.  I’ve always had a really intense thirst for knowledge and studying under Guruji allowed me to get a deep understanding, training and knowledge in the kathak tradition. In the Bay Area I was a teacher at Chhandam and a member of the CDDC.  I did my solo performance in 2010 in LA.  I think that my study with Guruji, and my life as a dancer began when I moved to LA. In LA I had to walk the path of an artist on my own and reflect deeply about the training I received.  I did my Fulbright in kathak last year, created my own story about Chandanbala. I was one of the first at CDDC to create my own story under Guruji’s guidance. Being in LA is making me into the kind of dancer I want to be, by reinforcing the value and richness of the training I have received. Ultimately all of our journeys are alone, even though we have people that love and support us along the way, we must decide on our own who we are and the impact we want to have on society.  Truly advancing the art has to be grounded in service, it has to be part of a vision of making society better.  Guruji taught me all of this when I was in the Bay Area, but didn’t truly learn any of it until I was here in LA.  It is exhilarating.  On the physical plane I am exhausted all the time, mind and body are exhausted, but my spirit is deeply fulfilled.

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