Informality Marks Ekal’s Fundraiser and Captivating Musical Stage Show

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Benefactors and dignitaries were applauded after lighting the ceremonial lamps.            Photos: Jawahar Malhotra

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON:  Even the Indian Consul General, who is used to going to many a glittering gala and formal event, noted the difference in the Ekal Vidalaya fundraiser this past Friday, May 22. “I am proud to be here,” said Parvathaneni Harish, a man who is not easily taken in by excessive adulation and décor, as he surveyed the audience. “Yahan formality kam hai, apnita hai (there’s less formality here, more togetherness). I want to give you a big round of applause.”

Harish was taken in by the easy style of fundraiser that has been the hallmark of the Ekal Vidalaya Foundation for many years and reflects the lack of formality and emphasis of inclusiveness that is the hallmark of the Ekal USA founder, Ramesh Shah and his wife Kokila who are led by Gandhian principles of austerity and service to humanity.

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Indian Consul General Parvathaneni Harish and wife Nandita presented award plaques to Raj and Jugal Malani


As in previous years, the fundraiser started with a dinner for 1,200 people in the large banquet hall on the Stafford Civic Centre on Cash Road, featuring a buffet style Gujarati vegetarian meal (catered by Bhojan restaurant) served by volunteers and eaten at round tables spread across the space. The mostly middle-class, decidedly low-brow and comfortably attired crowd walked over to the adjoining auditorium for the presentations and stage show. The event was so sold out that two additional rows of seats were set in the orchestra section upfront, just before the stage.

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The director of “100 Years of Bollywood” Milind Oak (in kurta) with the performers of the show take a bow

Ekal Vidalaya has grown significantly since it was started in India in 1986 by the US-returned nuclear-scientist Rakesh Popli and his wife Rama, a child-education specialist. The concept of bringing education to the villages through a “one teacher, one school” has grown to over 1.5 million children in 54,000 free schools in tribal areas of India, with a goal of over 100,000 schools this year.

And the fundraising message is simple: fund one school for one year at a cost of a dollar a day. As long lists names of donors were read out between interludes to the stage show by EV Houston Chapter President Naren Chavda and VP Prakash Shah, many of the attendees donated to fund one and even multiple schools. According to Shah, over $450,000 (funding 1,250 schools) was pledged that night, adding to the total raised by the eight other chapters across the US in the past month of similar events.

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Dr. Shreyas Bhavsar was the emcee for the show

They were encouraged to donate by the young and articulate emcee, Dr. Shreyas Bhavsar, debonair looking in his Nehru jacket and close cropped beard who asked the audience to “show the power of your voice, the love you have for India” and to consider their donation an investment. The director of the stage show, Milind Oak, spoke about his visit to an EV school and gave a testimonial to the schooling model.

True to form, Ramesh Shah made a brief speech close to the end of the show from the podium, dressed in a simple white cotton kurta-pajama. Shrini Shah and Anushri Shah sang the US and Indian National Anthems, with the entire hall joining in the Indian one. Chavda and Shah added to the background of EV with a video clip and three students from the R.I.C.E (Removing Illiteracy through Collective Education) Club of Seven Lakes High School in Katy showed how they had so far raised $3,000. On stage, appreciation was shown to the largest benefactors, Harish and wife Nandita, and local politicians Ken Mathews and Harish Jajoo, who placed LED candles on ceremonial brass diyas. The Harishes presented plaques to the main supporters, Jugal and Raj Malani and Ramesh and Kiran Bhutada. Shivani Shah gave the closing comments and thanks for the support.

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Ekal USA’s leader Ramesh Shah made brief comments

The cornerpiece of the evening was the musical, film and dance show “100 years of Bollywood” produced by Niche Entertainment of Pune, India, a production that has toured the US, UK, France, Singapore, USE and Muscat for the past three years. The same show toured the US in 18 cities last year and this year has been at all 9 EV fundraisers in the US, the last being in Dallas on June 30. Niche specializes in multi-media musical productions and this one – written by Dr. Ninad Thackare – promised to tug at the heart-strings of the first generation Indo-Americans with ties to the Old Country cemented by association to filmi songs from Bollywood.

Indeed they hit their mark, starting from the first silent films in 1913 to the Bombay Talkies and then going through the melodious years of well-known composers, lyricists and playback singers like Rafi, Lata, Talat, Kishore, Asha, Manna De all the way to the modern era of A.R. Rahman and Sonu. The video clips were accompanied by the same songs sung by Pune artistes Rama Kulkarni, Deepika Datar, Chaityna Kulkarni and Jitendra Abhyankar, with warm, fluid  and short dances portraying the scene (sometimes mimicking the film moves) by Kunal Phadke and Aishwarya Kale. Director Milind Oak narrated the show conversationally, sometimes perched on a stage platform. The hall was still packed at the end of the show, and many a head kept humming the melodies days after they had been sung on stage.