Dr. Ushakant Thakkar
Dr. Thakkar is a practicing physician, and founder and CEO of the Kidney Center, Inc., one of the largest kidney specialty groups in Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Dr. Irma Thakkar, and together they support many causes and charities. His biggest passion is education and his motherland, India.
As one of our very first donors, you believed in Leela from the very beginning, even before we had any professional productions to our name. What did you see in Leela that made you want to support us?
I have known Rina [Mehta] for a long time, probably since she was 10. We lived in the same community in the San Fernando Valley, and we were friends with her parents. At that time, I was very impressed with Rina’s overall personality, she was very bubbly and was always interested in talking and participating. Then we got very busy in our lives, I got busy with my medical practice and family, so our paths separated and we met only infrequently.
After Rina went off to college I would periodically meet with her family at social events like Diwali. Her parents would speak about her progress, that she was interested in science but also had a tremendous interest in dance, but after she graduated I didn’t have much contact with her for several years.
A few years ago, Rina came to visit me to talk about what she was doing and how she wanted to proceed, to get my guidance as an elder in the community. She was aware that I was very interested in Indian culture, every aspect, spiritual, philosophy, and art forms of India, and that I was involved in an organization which promotes Indian culture in American universities, Dharma Civilization Foundation. We were working towards getting American universities to have programs in Indian humanities, religion, art, archaeology and so forth. Rina and I reconnected because she was also very much interested in Indian art forms.
What I saw in Rina was astounding. She had completed her science education, but her interest in the arts was deep. She was going into a territory where income was very sketchy. Kathak is not very popular in the US, not many wanted to study or participate in it, and there was a concern about how she would make a living in kathak. I had seen her perform, and it was an outstanding performance. She was discussing her business plan of bringing the art form into popular culture. I was sold on the idea, not only promoting the art but exposing the Indian diaspora to this art that otherwise would not be available to them. She was willing to live on a very meager income in order to follow her passion. I was very impressed by her personality. She is a single arrow pointing in one direction, and I knew that if she worked hard enough and did a good job she will succeed.
This cannot be extinguished, you’ve got to keep this art form alive. I was blown away by that thinking, that dedication and energy. She knew that there is only one reward, and that is to dance well and promote the dance and then expose it to society. I told her if there is anything she needs, I am willing to participate. I had donated substantial money to various other charities and this would be like a charity at home. I feel that when you are far away from an institute it becomes one of those multiple fliers, junk mail, demanding some kind of charity. When you know the individual, you make sure that this money is going for the right cause, and if it is consistent with your philosophy it becomes a no brainer.
Supporting the arts is rare in the South Asian community, especially because many South Asian philanthropists choose to focus their charity on urgent needs like food and education. Why is it important to you, personally, to support the arts in general and/or Indian classical dance in particular?
I have supported many programs. Unicef, hospitals in the United States, sending dialysis equipment to India, and education in universities, food programs for needy children, but of all the things, I feel that an individual needs education, and one form of art. I feel that every individual should be engrossed into one art, whether it be music, dance, painting, even flower arrangement, something that comes from within. Dance in particular is valuable because it involves multiple areas. The music is very uplifting, the movement requires so much practice that it stimulates the brain to a very high level. It’s not sedentary. So many youth are into computers, etc. that don’t have any physical component. If youth are involved in dance, it creates an all around individual, helps the spirit as well as the body.
I gave my financial support to the school [the Leela Academy], and also talked to other people who are associated with charities to see if they would support it. That is how it started. I pledged $50k over five years, with the condition that she would go out and raise other money as well, and she was successful in doing so.
Why is it important to you, personally, to support the arts in general and/or Indian classical dance in particular? What do you want others to know about why Leela’s work matters?
To find a passionate individual is not very easy. Most people educate themselves ultimately to make a living, but to have a deep passion is not a very common thing. When I see someone with that kind of tremendous passion, It melts me a bit. Especially to come across a young person with such dedication. It blew me away, I wanted to do all I can to help.
When I want to put my money somewhere, I want to make sure it is not going to waste. I want to know that if I entrust my assets to someone, that that person is sincere, and is actually doing something substantial. I do my due diligence, just as I would when I buy a house or hire someone. Before I donated money to Leela, I said to Rina, let me see you in action, show me your organization. I went to a class and saw a few of her performances and there was no doubt that she was a genuine individual. And I wanted to make sure she [has the resources needed to] not get sidetracked to give up this art form.
After my donation, I saw that the organization grew, the number of students increased, there were more performances, and they were better attended, and I saw the quality of work on a professional level progressively improved. Pursuing art as a profession is risky, but when someone has a passion it needs to be supported. I stand with them, and I support and encourage them to go for it.
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