The 19th annual Near & Far Aid Spring Gala brought Bollywood to Westport on Friday evening with the cuisine and vibrant colors of India.
Organizers said Mitchell's of Westport was transformed into a Taj Mahal-like setting for the event. Long garlands of red, orange and hot pink carnations dangled from the lighting rafters. Aromatic spices of India wafted through the store as about 600 people feasted on tandoori chicken and pork, curry ragout, lentil roti and basmati rice pilaf.
"Mitchell's did a fabulous job re-creating the essence of a Bollywood-style cocktail party," said Nancy McTague-Stock of Wilton, one of several women who wore authentic saris. Other women wore lehengas, and some men wore Indian tunics.
Ghazala Lalani of Weston owns so many saris that she wore one and lent the others to models, who walked the runway to show off the colorful attire. Lalani said a sari averages six yards of fabric wrapped into a flowing dress-like garment.
Laura Maged of Westport adorned herself in an Indian-inspired outfit complete with a henna design painted onto her left hand.
"Good fun, good cause," Maged said.
The event also featured extravagant auction items including trips -- one to India, sports memorabilia and game tickets, a real dog, and tickets to attend an episode of ABC-TV's program, "Dancing with the Stars." Professional ballroom dancer Tony Dovolani, the reigning "Dancing with the Stars" champion, attended the Near & Far Aid Spring Gala and helped drive up the bidding for tickets to his show.
When one family bid $6,000 on three tickets, Dovolani, a Stratford resident, offered them to another persistent bidder if they agreed to match the price. The bidder did, so Dovolani helped raise $12,000 for the cause.
Tickets to next year's Super Bowl went for $11,000.
Liz Claman, a cable television anchor on Fox Business News' "Countdown to the Closing Bell," who served as master of ceremonies with Dave Price, former New York TV weatherman and talk-show host, thanked patrons for opening their hearts and wallets.
Price provided comedic moments, including during the bidding for the black Labrador puppy. "If there are any parents who love their kids ..." Price said, jokingly trying to convince them to bid on the dog.
The winner was Anabel Burtson, 9, of Westport, who wasn't immediately sure Friday what she will name her new pet.
Near & Far Aid was founded in 1946. It is an all-volunteer organization that works to reduce the effects of poverty in Fairfield County. Since 2000, it has awarded more than $12 million in grants to nonprofit groups, including nearly $1 million in its most recent fiscal year, according to Jeanne Burris, president of Near & Far Aid.
Bob Mitchell, of the hosting Mitchells clothing store, said the first Near & Far Aid Spring Gala, held 18 years ago in the store raised about $50,000. He anticipated this year's event would raise about $1 million.
"It's extraordinary every year. Every year it gets more interesting," said Jill Mullen of Westport, adding that there is great need in Fairfield County for the funding that is raised.
"You don't have to go all the way to Bombay to help people," said Sulu Grant of Westport, who is originally from Bombay. "There are people who can benefit from our good works right here in our backyard. Like in many parts of the world, there are the haves and have-nots living side by side," said Grant, who wore a traditional sari.
"We're targeting poverty and changing lives," Burris said.
Mike Duggan, executive director of the Domus Foundation in Stamford, one of the more than 100 non-profit social service organizations that receive grants from Near & Far Aid, brought with him a young man identified only as Eugene, who underscored the importance of Near & Far Aid's community support.
Eugene told the crowd he ran away from home as a young boy to escape his mother's abuse. When he first went to Domus House he refused to speak to anyone for months, but has since made friends, joined the U.S. Marines and he will soon graduate from Fairfield University.
"I'm proud of what I've done and I hope I've made my family at Domus proud, too," Eugene said. He said they were the first to believe in him.
First time Near & Far Aid participant Irene Fazio of Fairfield, one of the owners of House of Clement in Westport, called the work of the organization invaluable. "It's priceless to give back to your neighboring communities," she said.
Dovolani, who attended the event as the guest of Porsche of Fairfield, did not talk with the crowd about the coming season of "Dancing with the Stars," but he was willing to privately share some details.
"I got country royalty," he said of his celebrity dance partner, country music star Wynonna Judd. "She's got this big personality. She walks in a room and fills it with energy, with joy, with laughter. We just had a few days of rehearsal. It's going to be one of those seasons where we never stop laughing," Dovolani said.
March 18 is the preview of the new season of "Dancing with the Stars."
The next Near & Far Aid event is a Designer House Tour scheduled for May 3.
For more information about the work of Near & Far Aid or to make a donation, visit www.nearandfaraid.org