A talk with Valarie Kaur and Rina Mehta on the role of arts in facilitating Interfaith exchange

At the most elemental level, both art and faith represent a search for meaning and an attempt to make sense of the world we live in. At a time when racism, nationalism, and religious conflict are on the rise, dance and music constitute an powerful means of bringing people together, of finding common ground, and building communities.

Among Indian classical art forms, kathak is unique in that it is rooted in and deeply influenced by both Hindu and Islamic cultures. Born in the Hindu temples of ancient India, raised in the Muslim Courts of medieval India, kathak was driven into obscurity during British rule and subsequently reclaimed and revived during India’s independence movement. Contemporary kathak bears the scars of this long and checkered history, and mirrors the fractured communal identities felt by so many in the South Asian diaspora. Today, in a divisive and highly charged society, this classical art form takes on new and universal relevance.

Join us for a conversation between Valarie Kaur, renowned activist, author, filmmaker, and civil rights lawyer, and Rina Mehta, kathak artist, educator, and co-founder of the Leela Dance Collective, as they explore the possibilities of art as a vehicle for social change.



About the Speakers

About Rina Mehta
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; Son of the Wind, the story of India’s mythological hero, Hanuman, brought to life through dance-drama, and others. She has received funding to create and tour her works by such institutions such as the National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, and the Zellerbach Family Fund. She has also received the Alliance for California Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grant and the prestigious Fulbright award for research in the effectiveness of kathak dance education as a social intervention in underprivileged communities in 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.

About Valarie Kaur
Valarie Kaur is a seasoned civil rights activist and celebrated prophetic voice “at the forefront of progressive change” (Center for American Progress). Valarie burst into American consciousness in the wake of the 2016 election when her Watch Night Service address went viral with 30+ million views worldwide. Her question “Is this the darkness of the tomb – or the darkness of the womb?” reframed the political moment and became a mantra for people fighting for change. Valarie now leads the Revolutionary Love Project to reclaim love as a force for justice in America. As a lawyer, filmmaker, and innovator, she has won policy change on multiple fronts – hate crimes, racial profiling, immigration detention, solitary confinement, Internet freedom, and more. She founded Groundswell Movement, Faithful Internet, and the Yale Visual Law Project to inspire and equip new generations of advocates. Valarie has been a regular TV commentator on MSNBC and contributor to CNN, NPR, PBS, the Hill, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post. A daughter of Sikh farmers in California’s heartland, Valarie earned degrees at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School. Valarie’s new book, SEE NO STRANGER: A Memoir & Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, expands on her “blockbuster” TED Talk and hits the shelves in June 2020.


Pre-Event Contribution

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About the Leela Endowment

A look at the infrastructure for classical dance and music in the West is instructive. Major cities across the United States boast acclaimed ballet companies, symphonies and operas, each supported by a large endowment and a strong community of donors. These endowments are a direct reflection of the value a community has placed on its artistic and cultural heritage. In stark contrast, while there are hundreds of Indian classical dance and music schools around the world, none of these are supported by a sustainable financial infrastructure. India’s national dance and music institutes, although supported by financial trusts, provide meager support and pale in comparison to the need in the field. The Leela Endowment is the first and only self-standing endowment for Indian classical dance and music. The goal of the endowment is to ultimately provide direct financial support to artists that are serving as tradition bearers and cultural ambassadors. The Leela Endowment is a joint initiative of The Leela Institute and the Chhandam School of Kathak. For more information on The Leela Endowment click here.