Dancers & Musicians
Leela Dance Collective boasts some of todays leading kathak artists and dancers representing a diversity of artistic voices and vision.
Founding Artist, Soloist
Founding Artist Dr. Sarah Morelli has studied India’s performing arts since 1992 and is active as a kathak performer, scholar, and educator. Her dance is infused with a rich musicality and deep understanding of kathak’s past and present. Sarah was blessed to train with two legendary artists: kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das and maestro Ali Akbar Khan (vocal music and the sarod), as well as their disciples Pt. Rajeev Taranath, Dr. George Ruckert, Gretchen Hayden and Steve Oda. She earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Ethnomusicology in 2007. Her academic work includes the book A Guru’s Journey: Pandit Chitresh Das and Indian Classical Dance in Diaspora (University of Illinois Press, 2019), the seminal ethnographic study of Pandit Chitresh Das’s contributions to kathak.
As Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Denver, she teaches courses examining the profound and varied connections between music, dance, and other aspects of human experience. Sarah is also the founder of Leela Denver. She regularly guest teaches at kathak schools around the U.S. and India, delivers academic presentations at international conferences, and publishes in academic journals and edited volumes.
Dance artist and educator, Joanna Meinl, began dancing in 1990 at Ballet Etudes in Miami, FL, training and performing ballet, jazz, and hip-hop. Upon relocating to San Francisco, CA in 1995, she was introduced to kathak at San Francisco State University and began her 20 year journey studying with legendary master artist, Pandit Chitresh Das. She graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Dance Ethnology and became a performing member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company in 1998. Since then, Joanna has toured extensively throughout the U.S. and India as a soloist and with critically acclaimed productions including Darbar, Pancha Jati, Sampurnam, Sita Haran, and Shiva. She is honored to continue her Guruji’s legacy performing with the Leela Dance Collective, most recently in Son of the Wind.
Joanna is an avid arts educator and has taught kathak, ballet, ballroom, and creative dance in schools and arts programs throughout the Bay Area for over 20 years. From 2001-2005, she also trained as a ballroom and latin dancer and then pursued competitive west coast swing. She is currently a champion level WCS dancer and performs, teaches, and judges at events throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Dancer and arts advocate, Cimeron Ahluwalia, began her study of kathak with the late Pandit Chitresh Das at San Francisco State University in 1998, where she assisted his two unit accredited course for over three years. It was at SFSU, where she found her profound appreciation of classical and contemporary art forms and went on to pursue a career in non-profits while simultaneously studying and teaching kathak dance. Traveling both nationally and internationally to India with Pandit Das, she has performed with the Chitresh Das Dance Company in such productions as Sampurnam, Sita Haran, Yatra, and Shiva. In 2012, she performed her first traditional kathak solo in San Francisco. She is honored to continue the tradition, performing most recently with Leela Dance Collective in Son of the Wind.
Alongside her performing career, Cimeron had the great opportunity to train directly under Pandit Das, assisting many of his classes. Cimeron has held high level fundraising positions with such organizations as San Francisco Opera, SFJAZZ, San Francisco Symphony, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She attributes all of her opportunities in the art world to her love of kathak and has been fortunate to integrate performances into each organization to educate and promote the art form.
A born artist, Seema graduated from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California, USA with Bachelors of Fine Art (BFA) specializing in painting and sculpture. She trained under renowned kathak maestro Pandit Chitresh Das since 2000. Her lineage dates back to the great gurus of the Lucknow and Jaipur gharanas. Seema’s style therefore strikes an admirable balance between the two styles, the subtle and graceful versus the warrior-like vigor through powerful footwork and chakkars. Her performing career began in 2003 at San Francisco State University. She is an expert practitioner and performer of Kathak Yoga – Chitresh Das’s innovation within the kathak tradition.
Seema performs Kathak Yoga by dancing complex compositions while singing and playing the harmonium. She is also the Director of Chhandam Nritya Bharati-India where she teaches over 100 students in Mumbai and Kolkata. She has worked with the children of Kolkata’s red light areas, the New Light Project in particular, empowering them through kathak. She also teaches children from the Akanksha and SMILE Foundations in Mumbai. Going beyond the traditional preview of dance, Seema’s vision is to touch lives through her work. Seema is the Creative Director at Kirtilals.
Founding Artist, Soloist
Shefali Jain is an emerging force in the field of kathak. She has trained for over 12 years with Gretchen Hayden and the world renowned kathak maestro, Pandit Chitresh Das. Shefali has performed extensively as a soloist and as a member of the Chhandika Dance Ensemble, most recently debuting in a full length evening solo. She was also an apprentice of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, performing in its acclaimed productions Sita Haran and Shiva. In addition to performing, Shefali teaches at the Chhandika Institute of Kathak Dance as a senior instructor and founder and co-director of the Chhandika Youth Ensemble.
Ahana Mukherjee began studying kathak at the age of ten. She was a part of the inaugural Chhandam Youth Dance Company (now Leela Youth Dance Company) from 2001 through 2009. She performed extensively in various prestigious venues including the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. While at UCLA for her Bachelor’s degree, she joined Rina Mehta at Leela LA. Upon returning to the Bay Area, she resumed her studies and taught beginner level children classes. She has performed in several productions including Shiva and Son of the Wind. Currently, she serves as the Assistant Director of the Leela Youth Dance Company. When she is not dancing or teaching, Ahana is a design engineer in the renewable energy industry.
At the young age of four, Sonali Toppur began her study of kathak. In 2003, she joined the Chhandam Youth Dance Company (now Leela Youth Dance Company) and trained directly under kathak maestro Pandit Chitresh Das for over ten years. As both an emerging soloist and member of the youth company, Sonali performed at many prestigious venues and events including the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, the Kathak Conference in Chicago, and the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. She has been teaching since 2009, most recently at Leela Academy. Since graduating in 2016 from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, she now works as an actuarial analyst. She is passionately dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of Pt. Das — most recently performing alongside the Leela Dance Collective in the production Son of the Wind.
Ria DasGupta trained in classical ballet and modern dance for 14 years with the Academy of Dance Arts in Red Bank, New Jersey before being introduced to the world of classical and Rabindrik Indian dance by Malabika Guha in the early 2000s. Since then, she studied Bharatanatyam under Chitra Venkateswaran and trained in capoeira with Contra Mestre Maranhão. In 2014, she began her study of kathak with Seibi Lee, and is now a member of the teaching faculty at Leela Academy. Ria performed internationally in Spain, India, and Bolivia and extensively in the US with Kalamandir Dance Company (KDC), a troupe that she co-founded in 2009. In 2017, she was honored to debut with Leela Dance Collective in their inaugural production of Son of the Wind. In addition to her ongoing study of kathak, Ria is diversity, equity, and inclusion professional in higher education.
Born and raised in Reno NV, Carrie Jennings started dance classes at the age of eight and music classes at the age of eleven. She received a Bachelor’s of Music degree in classical trumpet performance from the University of Denver, and during her degree she began studying kathak with Dr. Sarah Morelli in 2013. She helped found Denver’s Sureela Academy and Ensemble of Kathak, now Leela Denver, in 2016. Carrie was honored to debut with the Leela Dance Collective in their Los Angeles premiere of Son of the Wind in 2019 at the Ford Theaters, and is proud to be the manager for the Leela Dance Collective and a teacher and administrator for the Leela Academy. In addition to her aspiring journey as a kathak dancer, she also performs as a trumpeter and vocalist, touring nationally with indie soul band Mama Magnolia.
Composer & Musician, Sitar
Jayanta Banerjee, renowned sitarist and eminent composer, started his formal training under the guidance of Pandit Rabi Chakraborty at a young age. His talent and singular approach to the sitar garnered him early recognition in the field. In 1997, he received the prestigious National Youth Festival Award, paving the way for a prolific and enduring career in music and composition. A profound sensitivity, responsiveness and gravity makes Jayanta’s approach to music. Jayanta has performed with some of India’s greatest artists including the likes of Pt. Rajan and Sajan Mishra, Pt. Birju Maharaj, Pt. Chitresh Das, Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri, and Pt. Kumar Bose.
He has established himself as one of India’s leading composers and his musical compositions are seen in India’s leading dance and theatrical productions. His live performances and compositions have been featured across India and around the world at prestigious venues such as the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, Meany Center for the Performing Arts, and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. He currently is a resident artist with the Leela Dance Collective and his recent compositions include the musical scores for SPEAK and Son of the Wind.
Ben Kunin spent 25 years studying the sarod under the legendary Maestro Ali Akbar Khan at the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) in San Rafael, California. He also studied tabla from Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri for many years at the AACM. In 2006, Ben began performing as an accompanying instrumentalist with the great kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das and many of his disciples. He performs frequently as a soloist and as an accompanist throughout the Bay Area. Although his focus is North Indian classical music, Ben began his musical career as a guitarist. He currently has produced four CDs of original compositions for sarod, guitar, tabla, and other instruments.
His second CD, entitled “Acoustic Adventures” was released on the Communion label and features solo compositions for nylon string guitar. In 2004 he released a CD entitled “Raga and Blues” with tabla artist Kukoo Singh, and in 2005 “Point of Departure” with Latin American percussionist Andres Sabogal.
Musician, Vocals & Harmonium
Vaibhav Mankad is an up and coming musical artist based in Mumbai, India. He boasts a Master’s degree in Hindustani Classical Vocal from Mumbai University and more than a decade of training under the guidance of Shri Rajesh Kelkar, renowned exponent of the Agra Gharana. Vaibhav began performing at the age of 15. His range and versatility quickly established him as a go-to accompanist for artists such as Pt. Birju Maharaj, Smt. Uma Dogra, Smt. Nandita Puri, and Pt. Rajesh Gangani. He has toured internationally performing at prestigious venues such as National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and The Broad Stage.
Vaibhav also has established himself as a solo performer with a specialty in the semi-classical genres of ghazals, bhajans, and sufi music. In addition to being a prolific performer, Vaibhav is a dedicated educator, with a passion for spreading the knowledge of Hindustani music. He has been teaching music for more than 15 years to talented and avid students in Vadodra, Gujarat, Mumbai, Maharashtra, and across California. Vaibhav is currently an artist-in-residence with the Leela Dance Collective, performing with the Collective’s major productions around the world and teaching regularly for the Leela Academy.
Satyaprakash Mishra is the son and disciple of critically acclaimed tabla artist Pandit Kalinath Mishra of the Benares Gharana. Satyaprakash’s versatility and range makes him a sought-after accompanist amongst India’s most renowned dance and music artists. He has performed nationally and internationally with artists such as Chitresh Das, Sunayana Hazarilal, Suresh Wadekar, Shankar Mahadevan and Anup Jalota. His performances have been seen at some of India’s most prestigious festivals including Saptak, Chakradhar, and Harrivallabh and at international venues such as Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, The Broad Stage, and the Green Music Center.
An artist and entertainer alike, Satyaprakash’s style is marked by technical prowess and sophisticated layakari on the one hand and accessibility and universal appeal on the other. When he is not performing, Satyaprakash is working as an educator, training a new generation of students in the art of tabla through classes and workshops.
Debashis Sarkar (1957-2020)
Musician, vocals & harmonium
The late Debashis Sarkar was an essential part of both the Chitresh Das Dance Company and Leela Dance Collective. His voice and creative spirit will forever be intertwined with the artistic works of Pandit Chitresh Das and all his disciples. Debashis Sarkar was born and raised in a musical family. In his early years he trained in classical and semi-classical music with a number of renowned artists including Shri Sukhendu Goswami, Ustad Sagiruddin Khan and Shri Sukumar Mitra. He received his formal and foundational training in Hindustani Classical Vocal Music with Ustaad Ghulam Mohammad Khan.
Debashis performed regularly for All India Radio as a top grade artist and numerous media outlets including Doordarshan. For more than four decades, Debashis was a highly sought after artist amongst India’s classical dancers. He accompanied some of India’s finest performers including the late Odissi master Guru Kelucharan Mahapatro, and notable kathak artists such as Pandit Birju Maharaj, Pandit Chitresh Das, Pandit Vijay Shankar, and Pandit Rammohan Mishra. Debashis was a core member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company’s musical ensemble for over 15 years participating in the composition and performance of full-length musical scores for dance productions such as Darbar, Shiva, Pancha Jati, Sita Haran, East as Center and Sampurnam. Debashis was a popular performer of light classical music including ghazals, thumris, and bhajans. He performed as a soloist and accompanist in prestigious venues in India, Europe, Japan, and the United States. He also played percussion instruments, having studied tabla under Pandit Hiralal Mishra. Debashis was also a resident artist with the Leela Dance Collective. He regularly performed with the Leela Dance Collective’s major productions including SPEAK and Son of the Wind. His passion for music made him a sought after lecturer and visiting faculty member at numerous educational institutions around the globe including Leela Academy.
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