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Who's sari now? At afternoon sangeet, UH prez Renu Khator talks about her amazing life

Photo by James Wright
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Upon getting to know University of Houston President Renu Khator, UH System Board of Regents chair Carroll Ray and her sister, Lillie Robertson, were struck by how Khator successfully combines Western life with Eastern traditions.  "I have gone to some events where she has worn a beautiful sari, so we thought it would be a great idea to have a sari party and afternoon tea," Ray said. "We're such a diverse community. The blending of cultures is really what Houston is about."

Renu Khator, right, at the sari party

Photo by James Wright
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Modeling the afternoon tea after a sangeet (an Indian/Pakistani ceremony held a few days before a wedding in which ladies sing traditional songs, dance and eat lots of good food), the Robertson sisters, along with another sister Beth Robertson, Sushila Agrawal, Lois Stark, Betty Hrncir, Nidhika Mehta and Chita Divakaruni, welcomed a who's who of accomplished Houston women to spend some time with Khator at Wortham House, the ceremonial home of the University of Houston president in Boulevard Oaks.

Carroll Ray places a bindi on the forehead of Pam Ott

Photo by James Wright
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When Lillie Robertson broached the idea of an afternoon tea to Khator, she was all for it. "You have to celebrate every single time you get an opportunity," Khator said. "A celebration helps you to do more."

At the party, Khator was celebrating the news that, for the first time, the University of Houston had been included in the 2012 edition of The Princeton Review's annual college guidebook, The Best 376 Colleges. Khator has gotten much of the credit for the university's upswing, but she insists she's only spreading the good news that was already there. "This university is so rich in talent, somebody had to tell the story and I'm a good storyteller," she said. "I love to brag."

Renu Khator, Lynn Wyatt

Photo by James Wright
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From left, Nidhika Mehta, Pily Simon

Photo by James Wright
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Carroll Ray, from left, Pam Ott, Lillie Robertson

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Shonali Agrawal, left, and Anu Lal

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Khator, who had her hand hennaed by an artist from The Original Henna Company at the party, made sure that the sari she wore had a touch of red (the University of Houston primary color). Khator owns around 200 saris.

Photo by James Wright
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Betty Hrncir

Photo by James Wright
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At the tea, Khator displayed her wedding sari. Born near the Taj Mahal and raised in the Indian state of Rajasthan, home to world's largest subtropical desert, she was 18 when her parents arranged her marriage to Suresh Khator in 1974. Ten days after meeting him, they married and were soon on their way to West Lafayette, Ind., where her husband was working on his doctorate at Purdue University.

If you look at her wedding photos, she is crying in all of them. Her new husband asked her why she was so sad. "Because my life is over," she replied.

But she soon discovered it had just begun.

Photo by James Wright
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Khatour's husband encouraged her to study at Purdue, where she received a masters degree in political science and a doctorate in political science and public administration, and has supported her as she has risen in the ranks of the nation's top educators. "Talk about karma. My father married me off to absolutely the right man," she said.

After a 22-year-career at the University of South Florida, Khator was hired in the dual role of University of Houston president and chancellor of the UH System in 2008. Given her success at UH, she admits that she is often asked when she plans to leave Houston to head up a larger, wealthier university in another city. She says with conviction that she can't imagine leaving.

"You tell me one place that is as embracing and inclusive as Houston," she said. "I love India, but can I tell you how fortunate I am to be an American, and a Texan, and a Houstonian. Every day here is a blessed day."

At the sangeet, Kiran provided a feast of Indian delicacies. Decor by Touch of Elegance and florals by Plants n Petals.

Photo by James Wright
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Pilar de la Garza samples the bountiful feast.

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Hybrid Rhythms Dancers perform a Bollywood number.

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A model showcases a colorful sari.

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The fashion show featured University of Houston students and alumnae.

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Later, some guests joined in the dancing.

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From left, Beth Madison, Cora Sue Mach

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Gabriela Dror

Photo by James Wright
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Hybrid Rhythms Dancers