When you are moving across the globe, country after country, it takes a really smart person to adapt to new environments in a short span of time. But more than smartness, it takes a really noble mind to reach out to the people of a strange land and custom, and lend a helping hand in the hour of need. When Lekha Sreenivasan danced on stages of various countries, it was not for fame. It was for charity.
Being the wife of a high profile diplomat -- TP Sreenivasan -- Lekha did a lot of travelling. It was in her stint in Fiji in the 80s that she first took up a dance performance for charity. In 1983, she set up in New York what is now one of the most-appreciated charity associations across the world - Karuna Charities.
Karuna is now five-unit-strong and spread across many countries. Lekha is the international chairperson of all the units.
She says: “Karuna was set up in New York, to help the charity institutions in India, especially Kerala. The first programme organised by the centre was a dance performance by me. The affluent community of the US could contribute to the cause. We were able to send money for victims of earthquakes and calamities. We gathered the money through bazaars or dinner parties, dance performances or painting exhibitions.”
Soup kitchen for poor people and students’ scholarship were some other areas that Karuna handled.
The second Karuna association was set up in Kenya to help the Africans there. “We’d feed children freely and teach them English or Hindi,” says Lekha. “In one and a half years, Karuna built a street children's home for the Don Bosco Fathers in Nairobi. Now, Karuna is running a girls’ school there for 74 children.”
The third installation came in her hometown in 1996, when the proceeds of a dinner party attended by Malayalam film actors were used to conduct the marriage ceremonies of 22 girls from poor families in Kerala. “The Trivandrum chapter of Karuna Charities was opened the same year. Recently, we set up a short stay home for poor patients and caregivers of the Regional Cancer Centre (RCC), at Kumarapuram.”
The fourth chapter of Karuna was started in Washington to help battered women. “It was a committee full of North Indian friends who helped me with it. We helped with the scholarships for poor students and colleges, the victims of Haiti, Katrina etc.”
The final centre was set up in Vienna. Under Lekha’s initiative the centre set up a waiting hall for bystanders at the RCC.
From 2002-2004, Karuna Charities in Trivandrum took up an initiative to train hundred girls in Anayara, in sewing and screen printing. For six months now, Karuna members gather at the Medical College - SAT premises every week, for ‘annadaanam’, during which they provide to the bystanders of patients, home-made porridge and curries, every Thursday at 4pm. Friends and volunteers of Karuna come to take part in this noble venture.
The whole Karuna chapter in her life only uncovers the dancer and social worker in Lekha Sreenivasan. However she marvels in more than one field of art. Lekha is also an artist. “I have always wanted to paint but did not think I was good enough. Then Sasikumar, who presently runs the Shangrilla Arts Gallery, came to our neighbourhood and I was eager to learn to paint.” And she learnt quite well. Her creativity was triggered by the landscapes that the places she went to presented to her. The view from her house in New York, the men of Kenya in their traditional attire, Japanese dance form, are all recreated in her canvas with an admirable element of imagination, visible among the hues and shades of her precious creations.
Lekha also has a taste for flower-making. “I learnt it from the wife of the Japanese Ambassador, when we were in Japan. She taught me to make Japanese bead flowers.” At the corners of her house are flowers she has arranged neatly into small pots and vases.
One would think that after all that social work and dance and art, she would be exhausted to try her hands elsewhere. But no, Lekha is not one to sit back and watch when she has her eyes on something. And she certainly has eyes for statues of elephants and Lord Ganesh. One step into the house and you will see more than 300 statues of various sizes of Lord Ganesh on her tables. But her elephant collection is something else. The sculpted elephants you see at the courtyard of her house will not prepare you for what is waiting upstairs, in the room she has reserved for this unique collection. A big table that extends all the way across the length of the room, is full of elephants of varying sizes - from the ones as small as a little finger, to bigger sizes.
Lekha is full of surprises. Looking at her humble and simple self, one would not guess she was once the global chairperson of the World Malayalee Council or now heads the five charity centres of Karuna across the globe. It is perhaps her greatest trait of all - the humility and simplicity. She is a true hero, nothing short.
- Cris Seetha