Beckoned by Charity in their Hearts, Couture Captivates Fashionistas


From left: Asha Dhume, Vice President, Pratham Houston, Dr. Madhav Chavan, Founder, Pratham, Designer Manish Malhotra, Ash Shah, President, Pratham Houston
Photos: Bijay Dixit

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: It was the promise of a high-end couture catwalk show that kept most of the guests glued to their seats, even though, given half a chance, like between the auction and dinner, they eagerly weaved their way through the sea of tables to find an acquaintance, friend or colleague to exchange a few words, look around the hall and pose for a few pictures that would eventually find their way onto their Facebook page!

This was, after all, Pratham Houston’s 21st Annual Gala, the premier Houston event that other lesser endowed Indian charities aspire to be like and the society ticket of the year for those wanting to see and be seen. Between Pratham Houston’s annual Christmas Luncheon and this event, the charity has certainly captured a large following of the fashionable modern Indian woman’s heart for soaking up the latest trends. And in its wake, a deep vein of creative flair has pushed the organizers for more original items to present. Four years ago this burst came from the techno-savvy interior lighting and stage show wizardry of Brij Kathuria (helped by Nalini Kannan), who was still very much in charge this time around too, with no expense spared for lighting, sound and video. This year, the spark was Pratham Houston President Ash Shah who has developed numerous connections in Bollywood and brought to town the designer to the rich and famous and movie stars, Manish Malhotra, to show off rich, one-of fabrics crafted into Indian fashions.

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Designer Manish Malhotra with models at the finale of the fashion show

The Gala was held once again at the Hilton Americas Hotel, across from the Convention Center, which has become Pratham Houston’s preferred venue and a record breaking 900 to 950 people attended the over five-hour long event which started at 5:45pm on Saturday, April 23. As the guests crowded around the second-floor lobby, a young woman dressed and painted silver like a statue posed for pictures alongside surprised admirers. Two dhol players broke the buzzing conversations with a jolt as they became the Pied Pipers leading the people inside to their tables.

Once inside, the four women Rasika Dance Troupe from Rice University performed classical dance movements to very modern, heavy drumbeat and vocal music from celebrated composer A.R. Rahman, as they did once again after the auction and dinner. Emcees for the evening Rekha Muddaraj, weekend anchor on KHOU 11 News (a former emcee in previous years) and Michael Pierce, Senior Counsel, Schlumberger and Society Blogger for the Houston Chronicle guided the program through its steps. Amiya and Apurva Ghosh, daughters of noted Houston vocalist Pandit Suman Ghosh, sang the national anthems of the US and India.

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Pratham Houston Advisory Board and Houston Board of Directors with spouses

In his welcome speech, Ash Shah marveled at how far Pratham had come in the last two decades and how this Gala was the largest in attendance and fundraising. He quoted the poet Maya Angelou on the measure of life “… by the moments that take our breath away” and how the pioneering work of Pratham in education struck a deep chord in his heart. He recalled the moment years ago in India when he saw a young boy risking his life chasing after a car in traffic to sell something and realizing that education was the only key out for those who are stuck in poverty to get a better chance in life. “Pratham’s low cost innovative model teaches a child for only $25 a year,” he went on, “and has impacted the lives of 40 million people.”

He disclosed later that the Houston Gala (co-chairs were Ajay and Dr. Sippi Khurana and Bashar and Brigitte Kalai) brought in $1.8 million that evening for the charity. Reflecting two days later, a tired by gratified Shah only said that Pratham Houston’s 2017 would be even better. “It will be bigger, better and grander as we would like to raise the bar of gala experience for our generous supporters.”

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From left: Ash Shah, President, Pratham Houston, Ajay Khurana & Dr. Sippi Khurana, Co-Chairs, Pratham Houston Gala 2016,  Asha Dhume, Vice President, Pratham Houston

After a video that showed the progress of Pratham in India through the years, Dr. Rukmini Banerji, the CEO of Pratham Education Foundation, based in New Delhi spoke of how over the past 20 years she has been impressed by the big heart the Houston has is its support for the organization. She explained the result of the work done with pre-school kids and how they quickly assimilate information they learn to address issues that they are not familiar with. She touched on Pratham’s Read India program that taught reading and basic arithmetic and her future vision to use electronic tablets with preloaded videos and facts to help kids learn English. Teasingly, she challenged the designer Manish Malhotra “to design a Pratham dupatta”, recalling the moments some years ago when founder Vijay Goradia’s tie was auctioned off at a Gala. Other galas are planned for later in the year by Pratham chapters in nine other cities in the US and Banerji will attend some of them.

An impressive part of the program was when 11 year-old Isha Patel, the articulate grand-daughter of Pratham Director Yogi Patel of Dallas, spoke convincingly of how she had raised awareness for Pratham and urged everyone to donate even as she would pledge $100. She began by playing “My name is ….. I am an iPAD” in several voices recorded on her iPhone and explaining that, for her, iPAD stood for India Proud American Desi and that ABCD really stood for American Born Compassionate Desi, to the delight of the audience!

The pledge drive was kicked off by last year’s president Marie Goradia as cards were collected from tables, following which the live auction began in earnest as Dr. Subodh Bhuchar  and John Heffernan both strode onstage and the catwalk to prod people on to bid for eight items, of which the giant brass Nataraja displayed in the foyer (and donated by Zarposh India) drew the highest bid at $13,500. Over the years, a once-hesitant Bhuchar has turned into an adept, practiced auctioneer sought out for many Indian galas. He displayed his growing skills by drawing on Banerji’s remark,  and persuading Vijay Goradia and Dr. Vashishta Patel to once again donate their ties, which together went for $4,000!

Dinner, as well as the appetizers early in the foyer, was provided by Dawat Catering whose Mahesh Shah was all over managing the service. And right after dinner, the night belonged to Manish Malhotra’s Royal Collection, introduced by Pratham’s Vice President Asha Dhume. To a booming soundtrack of folk music, cymbals and dhols, the models – nearly 30 of them – strode out in the elegant and brilliant fabrics that comprise the fashions that Malhotra has become famous for across the world. He had only been in the city that afternoon, but managed to brief his models and cue them for a poised and well executed runway show that was not the usual jilted version. At the end, with the models arrayed behind him, the 50 year-old maestro strode out in a basic black suit to acknowledge the models and take a bow, without a word.