Shruti Mahajan Deorah is a researcher at the Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, focusing on policies for clean energy transition in India. She also co-hosts the podcast for Eka, a yoga and meditation app from India. She lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and two children, and likes to travel and dabble in photography.
You have a long history with Chhandam, and now Leela, in a lot of different capacities, as a student, board member, donor, etc. Can you share a little about how you first became involved with Leela, and how that has changed over the years?
It was in 2005, when I had recently got married and had just moved to the Bay Area. I was looking for a kathak class and somebody told me about Chhandam, so I showed up to just check out the class in Mountainview. I watched Seibi Didi [Seibi Lee] teaching a class, and my first impression was whoa, how odd! Nobody’s wearing bells (this was a beginners class), there’s no music in the background, and there’s a non-Indian teaching this kathak class!
I was kind of taken aback, but Chhandam was highly recommended by a friend, so I enrolled. Slowly, I got to know what Chhandam was about. It was like its own movement, and I got to understand what this movement was about, and of course got a chance to interact with Dadaji [Pandit Chitresh Das] and a lot of the teachers there, I got to participate in intensives. There was a lot happening in those times (e.g. the international kathak festival in San Francisco) and it was exhilarating to be a part of Chhandam and start my journey there.
Then I moved back to India, so there wasn’t a natural way for me to continue my learning. I was still kind of a beginner. I did resume when Seema [Mehta] started teaching in Mumbai, but after I had my kids it was hard for me to continue, Mumbai being full of traffic and just impossible to drive around. When I came back to the US, I reconnected again with Dadaji and the community, and at that time they invited me to be on the board. It was a lively and supportive board, and a learning experience for me. I understood the challenge around financial sustainability for a nonprofit organization, the whole cycle of raising and spending money every year. Then with Dadaji’s passing there were a lot of other challenges. There was a lot of change in the organization, a lot of churning, and of course there was a split and two institutions were formed. I think I was very fortunate to have a personal connection with Dadaji, and really admired his vision, his passion, and his energy, and just everything that he stood for.
And now, I feel like my connection to kathak is lifelong. I still want to be connected even though I’m not dancing. I’ve always kept in touch with the teachers, and now my daughter is five so I’m hoping she will start learning kathak too! So that’s my journey. I think preserving a traditional classical art form is not easy in today’s world, I think everybody knows that, and that’s why it’s all the more important that anybody who is touched by this art form does their own little bit to really support it. There are so many people who don’t really know what this is about, so the people who do know, who appreciate it, I think it’s important for us to do our little bit.
Why is it important to you, personally, to support the arts in general, and Indian classical dance in particular?
The way I look at it, dance and music, or any form of art, is something that really enriches and lifts our spirits. The world is going through a challenging time, and there’s so much uncertainty, so much change. There’s a lot of both positive and negative change, but there’s so much focus on the negatives, and I feel art forms like dance, especially traditional, classical dance forms, can act as an anchor to carry us through these times. It’s an expression of our inner creativity, and it’s just pure joy.
For me, being touched by this joy and this creativity is mesmerising; it’s really a special experience. Dadaji used to call it meditation in motion, and it really brings us to the present moment like meditation. I think the more people can engage with art forms like this, there’s more connectedness and more joy. And I think it’s important to support that.
I also feel Dadaji’s legacy is different. It’s special. He had his own value system, and he really stood for many different values: he stood for respect for the arts, he stood for persistence, dedication, and service, and for taking this beautiful art form forward in its pure form, but also with excellence and innovation.
The Leela team, I can see they are committed to these values, and I really appreciate that. They stand for all this and more. From a financial sustainability standpoint, I completely understand, I’ve seen from the inside how hard it is for a nonprofit to be financially sustainable, and I’m really happy that the Leela team has taken this very important step towards financial sustainability, in terms of raising an endowment. That is also why we’re happy to support, to make it more sustainable for the long run. I have a lot of admiration and respect for the artists, because I got a glimpse of what it takes to be an artist. Of course they’re blessed in that they have this art form that they are pursuing in their life, but I know it’s not easy. So, we’re just trying to support in our own little way.
What do you want others to know about why Leela’s work matters?
Listening to Dadaji for all those years – he really stood for excellence, service and preserving the tradition. That’s something that really set him apart. I think the values system and the ethos at Leela also seems unique to me. Just the connectedness, and the dedication, and the attitude of service, that seems rare in today’s world. The Leela community is special!
Guruji was a rare feminist in his generation. He was so fiercely supportive of making girls and women powerful, really giving them that freedom and power of expression [through dance]. The confidence that brings for little girls, for teenagers, for young adults, all of that is very powerful. You can see that in our teachers. In terms of empowering young girls, kathak the way Dadaji has propagated it, is really important.
A lot of times when I see kathak videos on the internet, I think, oh, this is not even kathak. It’s so diluted to make it, first of all, more easily accessible, which is not a bad thing, but then it becomes a different dance form, basically. And then, people just don’t have the patience anymore, to put in years of work to get to a certain point in dancing. So there is a lot of fusion where I think people are trying to make it more trendy, to make it more attractive to youngsters. That’s what is different about Leela, even while they’re trying to innovate, asw with kathak yoga, they are true to the tradition and the tenets of the art form. That’s unique.
Whenever I have seen the Chhandam community, and now the Leela community get together, parents in the South Asian community start to appreciate the connection it gives us to our roots, our cultural values. That’s the ecosystem that dadaji brought together. I’ve seen how Indian American parents really appreciate it, once they’re exposed to it. Of course there are challenges to scaling it and still keeping the quality, so it takes time for more and more people to be exposed to that.
So I would like to share these different dimensions of Leela’s work with everybody. Especially with the Indian American community, now that I’m a mom. Fifteen years ago I could feel that kathak was bringing me closer to my roots, but now, as a mom, it’s even more significant. It’s challenging, living in a community that’s as diverse as the Bay Area, to have my kids really experience what it means to be Indian. It’s not enough to talk about our culture, they need to experience it. At Leela, the students definitely experience that.
I’ve been part of this community for a long time, off and on, and I don’t think I can ever leave, even though I’m not dancing! I love the dance form, it’s just so beautiful. I would urge the extended community to support this endowment to further this crucial work that Guruji started.
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