A Gentle Giant Passes, Leaving an Immense Void in the Arts World

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A garlanded portrait of Anil Kumar smiled out at mourners at his funral service on Monday, February 16, 2015

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: Those who have settled in the part of Southwest Texas over the past 60 years may recall the pioneers who paved the way for succeeding waves of desi immigrants from the Old Country. They gave freely of their time and money, sacrificing family time, jobs and the tug of other occasions to transplant some elements of culture and religion for the next generations to come. They arrived as bright-eyed young adults, deeply connected in their past traditions, unwilling to let it slip through their fingers as the inevitable process of Americanization would follow.

A handful of these stalwarts still remain, but also as inevitably they reach their Golden Years, they pass on leaving a void that is hard to accept, and perhaps harder to fill. Among them was a gentle, soft–spoken giant who sought not to be in the limelight, rather was content to bring others and their works into it. Anil Kumar was a pioneer in the world of performing arts, who, with his immensely talented wife Rathna, became the inseparable duo linked to classical Indian dance, avant garde fusion performances and mentors to many a budding, aspiring young artist.

This past Friday, February 13, one half of the duo, a pioneer and a friend to many in the desi community, passed away. News spread like wildfire to stunned people, and the outpouring of grief was immense as hundreds of people came for the funeral and memorial service at the Garden Oaks Funeral Home in southwest Houston on Monday morning, February 16.

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A steady stream of mourners passed by Anil Kumar’s coffin
and offered condolences to his bereaved family

Two long lines snaked through the lobby and aisles as the mourners passed by Kumar’s coffin, laying out rose petals and folding their hands and giving their condolences to his immediate family. Sons Kedar and Chetan and their families, brother-in-law Krishna Giri and wife Kalyani, and the teary-eyed, grief stricken Rathna, seated at the end and receiving the hugs and words of comfort from all those who insisted to soothe her. They stayed later for the service, which was already an hour behind schedule because of the stream of mourners.

The mourners came to say goodbye to a man who had, with his wife, created an Indian classical performance industry in the Bayou City and beyond, developing deep friendships with families whose children came for dance classes and returned when their own children were of age. The Kumars were childhood sweethearts with acting and performing in their bloods; appearing in film and plays when they were 4 and 6 years old.

They arrived in Houston in the late 60s and soon were the owners of Houston’s first Indian restaurant, Maharaja, in the Rice Village, where Rathna and Anil shared cooking and serving duties. Two years later, they had their first dance school on Beechnut and Kirkwood, in a warehouse space. The moved to Bissonnet and the Southwest Freeway, and stayed for many years till they moved to their current location in Sugar Land, emerging as Anjali Performing Arts Center.

For Anil, the lure of the performing arts, working behind the scenes, was so strong that he quit his engineering job at Texas Instruments and went headlong into photography and videography when it was still an evolving into the pre-digital age. His company, VideoWorks was sought out by the public and imitated by others younger and eager to get into the field. Anil taught himself the intricacies of shooting and editing using the latest software, but he kept an eye on the artists out there. He simultaneously developed his skills as a stage and video director, and founded the Samskriti Indian Performing Arts which has produced and presented numerous musical arrangements over the years, and was the first to offer its unique creations at Miller Outdoor Theatre.

Anil was constantly looking for the unusual angle that blended classical moves with Bollywood snazziness and wanted the music and the backlighting, video clips and props to create the mood. With Rathna, he worked out the music clips that matched her choreography and he was the one she most depended upon.

As happens to many of us, Anil neglected often his own needs and didn’t always get routine medical checkups. He was dedicated to taking care of his elderly aunt-in-law and helping others. What was supposed to be a routine checkup on August 22, last year instead became a nightmare scenario that resulted in his being hospitalized and then confined to a rehabilitation hospital, for the past five months. With hopes dwindling for his recovery and grappling with the pain that he was enduring, Anil’s family made the difficult decision to see if he could make it on his own strength, and he slowly passed away on Friday, February 13 at 11:30pm.

It was with much anxiety that the Houston community followed Anil’s final tribulation, hoping for his recovery. It is with mixed emotion – relief for his deliverance from the suffering he endured and grief for losing such a talent – that the desi community, of all creeds and religions, from all over the Sub-Continent have to say goodbye to Anil. But the desi performing arts scene created will long outlive him, and this will be his everlasting legacy.

A Message from Samskriti

The President and the Board of Directors of Samskriti mourn the death of our beloved Founder Executive Director Anil Kumar, husband of Artistic Director Rathna Kumar, Founder of Anjali Center of Performing Arts, Houston. Ever since Samskriti’s inception, Anil was an integral part of our planning, organizing and administrative operations. His creative genius and title in presenting “Bollywood Blast” and “Incredible India”  for nearly ten years at the Miller Outdoor Theater that brought a 5,000 strong audience is in indeed incredible.

His efforts helped Samskriti to bring to stage some of the finest of Indian performers, seminars and conferences. He lived a good life of giving, sharing, caring, and smiling, and was above all he was a simple and a good person at heart.

We will miss you always, Anil Kumar. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family to give them strength to bear the loss.

We remember him with this quote by Helen Keller “What we have once enjoyed, we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes part of us.” Thara Narasimhan