Get to know our instructors.
Seibi Lee began her studies in the arts at age 5 with piano, violin, and ballet. She developed a strong interest in the sciences in middle school and in 1985 she completed a Bachelor’s of Science Degree at the University of Alberta majoring in Psychology and Biology. At the age of 19, she discovered the harp and began a 2nd Bachelor’s degree, this time in Music. She completed a Bachelor’s of Music in 1991 and a Master’s of Music in 1994 both specializing in Harp Performance under the internationally renowned harpist Judy Loman at the University of Toronto. In 1991, Seibi met the legendary Kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das and began her journey into the world of kathak.
She continued her studies with Das’ disciple Joanna De Souza for the next 3 years. After establishing her professional harp career teaching and performing in the Vancouver area and holding the position of Principal Harpist with the Vancouver Island Symphony, Seibi made the decision in 1997 to move to the Bay Area to study Kathak with Pandit Das in the guru-shishya parampara, traditional one-on-one training. This formative experience continued until his passing in 2015. Seibi began performing with the Chitresh Das Dance Company in 1999 and was appointed to be Co-Director of the Chhandam School by Pandit Das in 2010. Currently, Seibi is Senior Instructor, Dean and Artistic Director of Chhandam School of Kathak, and guest faculty at the Leela Institute in LA, Sureela in Denver, and Chhandam Nritya Bharati in Mumbai. The depth and expansiveness of this art form is a great inspiration to Seibi and she has dedicated much of her life to passing the knowledge of Das’s pedagogy through teaching and mentoring generations of teachers and dancers. Seibi is Co-Founder and Principal Dancer of Leela Dance Collective, a group led by senior disciples of Das that bases its philosophy on collaboration and collective creativity and whose work is strongly grounded in tradition yet boldly innovative.
Rachna Nivas is a leading artist, educator, and activist in Indian classical dance, bringing a relevant voice to kathak. Deemed “charismatic” and “revelatory” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Rachna is a fierce and passionate performer, displaying the depth of her 17-year training under legendary master and icon Pandit Chitresh Das. Rachna was a principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company for 15 years and has toured extensively across the globe. Rachna began teaching at the Chhandam School in 2001. Her skills quickly brought her into a leadership role to build the school.
Her passion and commitment to her own journey of the art and to building pride of Indian classical art amongst the South Asian community led her to emerge as a powerful role model amongst the Indian diaspora. In particular, Rachna has exceptional talent in teaching and training youth, making the art relevant, inspiring, and empowering to girls. By 2009, Pandit Chitresh Das himself appointed Rachna to be Co-Director of the Chhandam School along with Seibi Lee. Rachna and Seibi worked tirelessly directly under Pandit Das to institutionalize curriculum, build infrastructure, train teachers, develop Chhandam’s Nine Principles, create a summer camp program, direct school-wide dance dramas, and flourish the school into one of the world’s leading and most influential academies of North Indian classical dance. Rachna has also taught numerous kathak workshops, after-school programs, and outreach events/residencies to communities of all backgrounds, including at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Treme Center of New Orleans, Conservatory of Arts in Miami, Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, LA Tap Fest at Debbie Allen Dance Academy, National Center for Kathak Dance in New Delhi, and many more. Rachna was the successor to Pandit Das as Co-Artistic Director of the Chhandam School and Artistic Director of the Chhandam Youth Dance Company, shepherding excellence, leadership, and creative discovery amongst teens. She is also a founding artist of the Leela Dance Collective, an artist-led collective producing powerful works through the collective creativity of trailblazing women in Kathak. More recently, she has brought her lineage and philosophy of kathak to promising pre-professional adult students in New York City. She currently guest teaches at many of Leela’s affiliate schools, becoming one of the most sought-after kathak artists and teachers of her generation.
Rina Mehta brings to the art form of kathak, classical dance of North India, a singular voice and vision. An artist and an entrepreneur, she displays on and off the stage her depth of training with legendary kathak master, Pt. Chitresh Das, an unshakeable grounding in tradition and a pioneering spirit. Described as “regal” and “brilliant” by critics, her performances and artistic work are paving a path forward for the legacy of Pt. Chitresh Das and kathak dance itself. Rina is a founding artist of the Leela Dance Collective, which brings together leading artists from around the world to advance a collective vision for kathak.
Rina’s original works include SPEAK, a kathak-tap collaboration; Chandanbala, the story of the revered Jain saint interpreted through the Kathak tradition; and Son of the Wind, the story of India’s mythological hero, Hanuman, brought to life through dance-drama. She has received funding to create and tour her works by such prestigious institutions such as the National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, the California Arts Council, and the Zellerbach Family Fund. Prior to her work with the Leela Dance Collective, Rina was a principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company, performing and touring with the company’s critically acclaimed productions including Shabd, Pancha Jati, and Sita Haran across the United States and in India. She has received the Alliance for California Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grant and twice been nominated for an Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Company performance as part of the Chitresh Das Dance Company. She has performed at such prestigious venues/festivals nationally and in India as REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater), Meany Hall for Performing Arts (University of Washington), Tata Theater/NCPA in Mumbai, and the Shaniwarwada Dance Festival in Pune, as a soloist and with the Chitresh Das Dance Company. Rina is also the recipient of the prestigious Fulbright award and researched the effectiveness of Kathak dance education as a social intervention in underprivileged communities in Mumbai, India. Rina’s most ambitious initiative is The Leela Endowment, the first initiative of its kind, aimed at providing the financial infrastructure necessary to advance India’s rich artistic heritage.
Artistic Director of Leela Denver, Dr. Sarah Morelli (Harvard Ph.D. 2007) is a tenured Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. With training in both Hindustani music and kathak dance from world-renowned artists Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Chitresh Das, respectively, Sarah is an energetic, inventive teacher who enjoys working with students of all levels, from kids’ kathak classes to graduate university seminars. Her book, A Guru’s Journey: Pandit Chitresh Das and Indian Classical Dance in Diaspora, is an ethnographic examination of Pandit Chitresh Das’s contributions to kathak dance and the development of the “California gharana.”
She is also the author of an Instructor’s Manual for the college-level world music textbook Soundscapes (W.W. Norton, 3rd ed.) and regularly presents her research on kathak at academic conferences for national and international associations such as the Society for Ethnomusicology and the International Council for Traditional Music. As a visiting instructor at all Leela Academy locations, she particularly enjoys teaching Hindustani music skills to kathak dancers and has developed innovative methods that utilize movement exercises to help students identify notes and sing in tune.
Dance artist and educator, Joanna Meinl, began her kathak journey studying with legendary master artist, Pandit Chitresh Das, in 1995 at S.F State University. She graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s Degree in Dance Ethnology. As a performing member of the world renowned Chitresh Das Dance Company since 1998, she toured extensively, and presented her first traditional kathak solo in 2005. As an instructor at the Chhandam School of Kathak since 1999, she directed the Marin, Union City and San Jose branches and served as Arts Education Program Director. She is currently a champion level West Coast Swing dancer and performs, teaches and judges at events throughout the U.S. and Europe. She has taught kathak, ballet, ballroom and creative dance in schools and arts programs throughout the Bay Area for nearly 20 years and continues to love sharing her joy of dance!
Dancer and arts advocate, Cimeron Ahluwalia, began her study of kathak with the late Pandit Chitresh Das at S.F State University in 1998. Traveling with Pandit Das, she performed with the Chitresh Das Dance Company and, in 2012, she performed her first traditional Kathak solo. Since 2003, she held positions as Branch Director and teacher in the Mountain View, San Francisco and Fremont branches of the Chhandam School of Kathak. 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 credits all of her opportunities in the art world to her studies in kathak and oftentimes brings the artform into her presentation style. While teaching, she brings her performance style in, to not only educate but to captivate as well.
Poonam Narkar began her kathak training at Chhandam School of Kathak in 2007 and received training directly under Pandit Das starting 2010. After his passing, she has been training under the mentorship of senior artist Seibi Lee. She has performed in Chitresh Das Dance Company’s critically acclaimed productions such as Ramayan, Darbar, Sita Haran, and Shiva, and several of Chhandam School’s Arts education programs. Poonam performed her debut kathak solo in 2017 and performed in Leela Dance Collective’s magnum opus Son of the Wind. In addition to performing, Poonam has been teaching since 2010, and served as a branch director and School Programs Manager for Chhandam School of Kathak.
At the age of four, Sonali Toppur began her study of kathak at Chhandam School of Kathak. She joined the Chhandam Youth Dance Company in 2003 and trained directly under world-renowned Kathak maestro Pandit Chitresh Das for over ten years. From 2009-2013, she regularly taught classes and summer camps at the Chhandam School of Kathak, and worked in administrative roles for branch registration and financial management as well. Sonali now lives in Seattle, and is passionately dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of Pt. Das — most recently performing alongside the Leela Dance Collective in their production of Son of the Wind.
Assistant Director of the Leela Youth Dance Company, Ahana Mukherjee began studying kathak at the age of ten at the Chhandam School of Kathak and was a part of the inaugural Chhandam Youth Dance Company from 2001-2009. She performed with the Youth Company in various prestigious venues including the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. While at UCLA for her Bachelor’s degree, Ahana continued her kathak study with Rina Mehta and taught for Leela. Upon returning to the Bay Area, she resumed her studies at Chhandam and began teaching and assisting beginning level children’s classes. She has performed in several leading productions such as Shiva and has also been an ensemble dancer in Leela Dance Collective’s pioneering work, Son of the Wind.
Carrie began studying kathak with Dr. Sarah Morelli in 2013 while pursuing her Bachelor’s of Music Degree in classical trumpet performance from the University of Denver. After meeting the great kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das at a San Francisco dance retreat a year later, she decided to deepen her commitment to the dance and helped found Denver’s Sureela Academy and Ensemble of Kathak in 2016. Currently a performer, teacher, and administrator at Leela, she loves sharing the joy of kathak with her students and her community. She recently became an apprentice with the Leela Dance Collective and toured with the company in Son of the Wind, and currently serves as the Performances Manager.
Ria began her study of kathak with Seibi Lee at Chhandam School of Kathak in 2014. Before starting kathak, Ria trained in classical ballet and modern dance for 14 years 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 and other Afro-Brazilian arts under the guidance of Contra Mestre Maranhão. 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 debuted as an apprentice dancer for The Leela Dance Collective, and has toured with the company in Son of the Wind and California Gharana.
Neha Tummala is a teacher at Leela NY and has been studying kathak since 2013. She began her training under Joanna de Souza in Toronto and is now continuing her training under Rachna Nivas. Neha also supports the Leela NY team as an administrator, and has a passion for strategic planning and community building.
Neeraja Yadwadkar’s kathak journey began about 15 years ago and has taken her to schools of kathak in Pune, Bangalore, and California. In 2013, she began studying under Seibi Lee in California, while pursuing a Ph.D. in Computer Science at UC Berkeley. She now teaches children’s kathak classes and summer camps at Leela and helps in promoting and preserving the art of kathak through community performances and performances for young audiences. Neeraja also performed as a cast member in Leela Dance Collective’s Son of The Wind in 2018.
Seema Barua began her journey in Indian Classical Dance at the age of five, studying Kuchipudi with the Nritya Sikhara Academy under Smt. Sumathy Kaushal in southern California. Upon moving to the Bay Area in 2015, she began her studies at the Chhandam School of Kathak. Seema received her Bachelor’s in Science degree in Civil Engineering and Master’s of Science degree in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a Project Engineer at ENGEO Incorporated, where she manages a multitude of residential, commercial, infrastructure, and environmental projects for the Bay Area community. Seema is committed to serving the community and is eager to continue to do so with the Leela Leadership Team.
Pallavi Salvi began her study of kathak in 2016 under the guidance of Dr. Sarah Morelli, a professor at the University of Denver and a direct disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das. She is a Leela Academy Manager, and is involved in the marketing, outreach operations, and day to day management for both Leela Los Angeles and Leela Denver. She also teaches beginning kathak classes and workshops for kids and loves to share the joy of kathak dance through teaching and performing throughout the Colorado Front Range.
Rakshitha Ballal began her study of Kathak in 2016 under the guidance of Rina Mehta, a founding artist of the Leela Dance Collective and a direct disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das. She is involved in the day to day management for Leela Los Angeles and also teaches beginning children and youth classes. She loves to share the joy of kathak dance through teaching and performing throughout Los Angeles.
Jayanta Banerjee, renowned sitarist and eminent composer, started his formal training under the guidance of Pt. Rabi Chakraborty. In 1997, he received the prestigious National Youth Festival Award. Jayanta has performed with some of India’s greatest artists including the likes of Pt. Rajan, Sajan Mishra, Pt. Birju Maharaj, Pt. Chitresh Das, Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri, and Pt. Kumar Bose. He is one of India’s leading composers and his compositions are seen in India’s leading dance and theatrical productions. Banerjee has been featured at prestigious venues such as the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. He is currently a resident artist at Leela and is heavily involved in the composition process for all of their major productions, including most recently SPEAK and Son of the Wind.
Pandit Kalinath Mishra is a renowned tabla player of the Benaras Gharana, born and brought up in a musical family. He received his training from Pt Shambhunath Mishra and renowned tabla maestro Pt. Madan Mishra. In 2016 he started the Sangeet Samagam Trust in memory of his father and guru. Kalinath is an A-Grade artist for All India Radio in Mumbai, and has played tabla with top artists all around the world. He has won accolades from the Swar Sadhana Samiti, Sur-Singar Samsad, Taal-Mani, Prayag Sangeet Samiti, Allahabad and the Bharat Gaurav Award. He is known for his incredible mastery and musiciallity both as a soloist and an accompanist for kathak dance. He most recently toured with the Leela Dance Collective as principal tabla artist for Son of the Wind, and is a visiting artist at all of the Leela Academy centers.
Satyaprakash Mishra is the son and disciple of critically acclaimed tabla artist, Pandit Kalinath Mishra of the Benares Gharana. 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.
Vaibhav Mankad is an up and coming musical artist based in Mumbai, India. He boasts a Master’s 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. He has 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 performed at venues such as National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and The Broad Stage, and has established himself as a solo performer with a specialty in semi-classical ghazals, bhajans, and sufi music. Vaibhav has been teaching music for more than 15 years and is a passionate educator. He is currently an artist-in-residence with Leela and enjoys sharing Hindustani vocal music with students world-wide.