WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has received an unprecedented $1-million gift of seed money to create an India Fund at the Kennedy Center with the goal of producing and presenting Indian programming through 2025. The funding is from Ranvir Trehan, a member of the Kennedy Center’s Board of Trustees along with his wife Adarsh and The Trehan Foundation, Inc.
“The Kennedy Center is a place, first, to be providing both programming that is well known and programming that is less well known, so that it becomes more well-known and it has a larger stage,” said Deborah F. Rutter, the center’s president. “Being the national cultural center, it is important for us to being international programming here for our audiences, both locally and nationally.”
On Nov. 14, India Abroad was exclusively invited for the signing of the agreement by Rutter and the Trehans along with India’s Ambassador to the U.S. Navtej Sarna, Alicia Adams, vice president for international programming, and Robert Van Leer, senior vice president of artistic planning.
“When you have individuals who are interested in a particular art form and they can help secure it financially, it means that we have greater liberty to be creative, and that’s exactly what you are helping us to do,” Rutter told the Trehans.
An entrepreneur and tech guru, Ranvir Trehan has been one of the leading Washington, D.C. philanthropists, both in mainstream America and internationally, and has emerged as a leading Indian-American patron of the arts.
“Our idea,” he said, “is that there is reinforced programming—that there is more of it, both well-known artists as well as experimental forms, fusion forms. Now I see in India, there is also comedy in the English language that is coming up and so, maybe there is something to tap up.”
He said he hoped the seed money would inspire others’ gifts, particularly from his Indian-American colleagues on the board.
He had earlier told India Abroad that the huge success of the center’s Maximum India Festival in 2011 was due in large part to gifts from fellow board member Romesh Wadhwani and several multinational corporations. “But since then, we’ve not had much in terms of Indian programming before or after that festival,” he said. He said the three-day UTSAV festival held for the past few years was also cancelled.
“There is a need and desire for sustained India programming at the Kennedy Center for many years to come and I see this as a broad based effort by individuals both in the Indian-American community and others interested in Indian culture from foundations and MNCs. The result maybe several events every year or even a mini-festival or a substantial festival like Maximum India. The Kennedy Center may choose to cooperate with performing arts centers in other cities on this effort,” he said.
“The India Fund will exclusively be used to create and present at the Kennedy Center performing arts, artistic exhibits and/or festivals showcasing the history, traditions, literature, music, dance and/or culture of India. The intent of the India Fund is to be ‘country focused’ on India the current nation state of India and the programming is intended to utilize established and/or emerging artists, singers, musicians or other performers or performance creators who are either citizens of India or whose ancestry is from India,” he said.
Trehan added, “Contemporary and experimental art that may appeal to wider audiences is to be included, and while we will be offering consultation to the Kennedy Center as requested, the programming decision will be theirs.”
Sarna called the Trehans’ initiative “the encouragement that we need.” A novelist and poet himself, Sarna said he said the Indian arts are at a “very interesting phase….It surprises me constantly because we are all used to a certain vision of Indian culture, but if you now put on a new film or you see a new dance performance, you are always surprised because people are always crossing borders in different directions.”
He recalled how a recent performance at the embassy residence hosted by his wife Dr. Avina Sarna featured Anuradha Nehru—a well-known dancer in D.C. circles. Nehru, he said, had done Kuchipudi to the music of Leonard Cohen.
Rutter told India Abroad that the Kennedy Center had been contemplating ways to expand its international programming and the Trehans’ gift will ensure these offerings on a more ongoing basis.
Adams, who had coordinated and choreographed The Maximum India festival, said the gift will help bring back some of the artists featured in that festival. She said Maximum India drew some 400,000 people–a Kennedy Center record for a country-specific cultural festival –and sold-out performances during its three-week period.
It was also the first time that the Center had presented major Indian artists on its stages, with the exception of Zubin Mehta with one of his orchestras from time to time.
Trehan is also a member of the board of directors of CARE and a former member of the board of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts in Fairfax County, Virginia. Two years ago, he was among those instrumental in getting A. R. Rahman to open Wolf Trap’s 2015 program. Rahman’s concert recorded the highest attendance and the most revenue among all of Wolf Trap’s concerts.
Asked what kinds of liaisons and collaborations with the Kennedy Center could be expected, Sarna told India Abroad, “We have multiple streams, and particularly for a country like the United States, there is no dearth of groups either traveling here or being sent here. This is sort of the center in many ways and the Kennedy Center is a prestigious venue. …There would be no dearth of people coming to the U.S.—it’s a question of how much the Kennedy Center can sustain it terms of providing them. So you will get the best out there.”
He said corporate money from India is also going increasingly into supporting cultural events and so you need the people who can tap these budgets and there you have sources, individuals, who are extremely active in this.”
Rutter said Adams’ own work has been an enhancement for the center. “She’s been traveling the world and traveling across the country and has a wonderful network. So, really being able to tap into those resources and long experience and has been able to work closely when governments, when appropriate,” she said. “You always want to have the balance of the integrity of the artistic curation because otherwise you just become a mouthpiece. And, so, it’s important for Alicia and her team together with the broader artistic planning group to make those choices because otherwise it gets complicated—in one part of the world it may be easier than another part of the world.”
“I believe that in a diverse country as ours is here, it’s important for people to be exposed to these cultures because aside from goodwill it helps to break the walls of prejudice,” said Adarsh Trehan.
Adams agreed. “Often what we are trying to do is find the Indians to come to the Indian festival, but in fact, what we need to do is have the Irish come to the India festival too—and of course, have the Indians also attend the Irish festival. We are not just trying to celebrate it for those who already know it.”
Rutter viewed this role as a kind of cultural diplomacy. “It feels like we have these conversations in an ever-growing momentum, and we do a lot of travel around the world and it feels like this issue of how can people understand one another is increasingly important. Part of it is international and part of it is local and so we are trying to take a little bit from our how do we know the world through visiting it culturally, to try and do that on a local basis and here in America as well, so that we can understand one another better.
“When you sit and have a political conversation, it doesn’t go so well. But, then you go together to see the ballet or hear music or go to a museum together and suddenly everybody gets along well—they find their commonality.”