Hark Vasa is Chair of the Leela Institute Board of Directors in Los Angeles, and the President of Vasa Business Services. He is deeply involved in the community and is a founder of numerous organizations. Hark and his wife Kusum are proud parents of two adult daughters, Anita and Sarita.
How did you first become involved with Leela, and what made you decide to support us?
It was close to 15 years ago, when Rina [Mehta] was starting out in the LA area. She wanted to bring her Guruji, Pandit Chitresh Das, to do a big show in Los Angeles, and she started asking people in the community for support in organizing it. She spoke with probably five or six different people in the community who all said, you need to talk to Hark Vasa. He’s your man. My daughter Sarita and Rina have known each other quite well for many years, because Sarita was running ArtWallah [an annual festival of South Asian arts founded in 1998]
So Rina called me up, and I said come on over and let’s talk. So we sat down, talked about it, we organized it and planned a very beautiful program called East Meets West. It was at La Mirada Theatre, which is a beautiful auditorium with about 1200 capacity. It was a wonderful show with Guruji and Jason Samuels Smith, tap dance and kathak dance together. It was exciting and after the successful show, Rina said, Uncle, what I really want to do is start Leela as an organization.
We sat down and did a lot of planning, and I told her, look, in order to be successful what we need to do is to raise money. Because otherwise, after some years you may move on and the organization won’t have the ability to go on. I said we need to have a business plan, and we need to create a board of directors, an executive committee, and create an organization that people believe in. So that’s how Leela was formed.
When Rina started Leela, the idea was really to promote the art and culture of India amongst our next generation. To do that successfully we needed an organization that can flourish and continue to grow. We started creating structure for the organization, it came into existence, and then we started raising money for Leela.
In order to do that, we really need to have a strong team. Whenever someone wants to donate money they always look to see who is on the management team. So one of the first things we needed to do was to create a board of directors. We created a board of directors with community leaders who are successful, who are well known and devoted to helping in the community, so when people see that these successful people are supporting Leela, then they will want to donate and support the organization too. We started formulating a strategy and started with key people in the community. We were very pleasantly surprised that everyone was receptive and one out of every two people that we met said yes, we are ready to help you and donate money, and the ball started rolling.
Rina said I want you to be Director and Chair of the organization, and I said I’ll be there as long as you want me. Once you don’t need me anymore, let me know and I’ll move on to something else. It’s been 5 years now that we’ve been operating very successfully, we have an investment account and we are on the way to building a million dollar endowment, so I think we are on the right path and have the right team. Our management team is strong, the organization has grown, a lot of people are supporting Leela, and I think there is a lot of potential to become a long, long term success story. I don’t think Leela has to worry about going out of business, I think it will be there forever.
You’ve been involved with Leela since 2015, and are Chair of the Board of Directors. What has that experience been like, and what are some of the biggest accomplishments?
I’ve seen a lot of remarkable changes over the past several years, all positive changes, we initially started with a small organization with a little money, and within a couple of years we have several major donors, more and more programs are getting organized, more students are joining , some students are getting trained to teach kathak dance, so we are creating more teachers, and now we are getting organized not only in Los Angeles, but joining with organizations in San Francisco, Denver, and New York, and creating connections with India and other places.
I met with Seema Mehta from Leela’s partner organization in Mumbai, Chhandam Nritya Bharati. Rina, Seema and myself met for more than three hours at a coffee shop, and I still remember Seema said, “Rina, don’t ever let this uncle leave you! You need him!” And I said “Seema, don’t worry, I’m here with her and if you need me I’ll help you too”. It was nice to hear that.
I also remember meeting Guruji before he passed, we had a very pleasant meeting and talked about a lot of different things. It was an exciting meeting. He also said “I am so glad that you are helping Rina and my other students to become successful”.
With the work that has been done so far, we have an excellent, bright future.
I think one of the big highlights has been Son of the Wind, on the life of Hanuman. I think that was a big turning point because we performed it in the Bay Area, in northern California in Sonoma wine country, as well as here in Los Angeles at the Ford Theatres in Hollywood. That really got a lot of people excited about Leela: Wow, here are more than 30 artists coming together to put this whole story on stage, very beautifully performed with music and dance.
Why is it important to you, personally, to support the arts in general, and Indian classical dance in particular?
For me, it is really about supporting our youth in doing anything that they want to do to help the community. Any time someone comes to me and says that they want to start an organization and says that they need guidance and help, I’m always there to jump in and help them. I have supported more than 15 organizations like that. I believe it’s very very important to support our youth because they are the next generation that is going to take us forward, they need to carry on our culture, our traditions, our art.
We need to listen to youth, listen to their ideas, but they also need a lot of guidance. They need financial support, and they need moral support. If you don’t do that, as a senior who has been successful in the community, who else is going to do it? If you do that for them, and support them, then they will flourish. And when they flourish they will feel good and our next generation will feel good. That’s why I think it’s extremely important for all of us to support art, culture, and particularly ideas from youth. When young people have ideas, they will do something, and we need to wholeheartedly support them and help them to be successful.
I wish everyone a great future in Leela. I am very happy to work with all of them, and I will be there to support Leela as long as Leela needs me. When they don’t need me anymore, I will let the next person step into my place, but I am there as long as they need me.
What do you want others to know about why Leela’s work matters?
As more people come to know about Leela they will want to support it. There are a number of other organizations who are teaching kathak, some are successful but none will be as successful as Leela because Leela has an organizational structure with a management team, a Board of Directors, financial structure, and we are an open organization and people can clearly see that this is an organization with a long-term future.
Whereas most of the other kathak dance organizations in the United States are typically a one-person show. Someone has a desire to do it and starts a school, but after ten, fifteen years they may lose interest and then the school falls apart. Leela is unique in that it is a long term institute. It was built with the aim that it’s going to be there pretty much forever. That’s why people need to support Leela, because it’s not a five or ten year phenomenon, it’s like a university that is in existence for 50 or 100 years or longer. That is the vision that we all have for Leela, that it’s a permanent institute that will continue to grow and grow.
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