"When you dance you connect with your innermost core and feel the joy of being alive." – Hema Rajagopalan
When Hema Rajagopalan began teaching Bharata Natyam to Indian-American girls in her living room in the mid-1970s, no one would have imagined that three decades later this homespun operation would grow into a full fledged Bharata Natyam school and a dance company internationally renowned for integrity to tradition and choreographic innovation.
As a toddler, Hema couldn't stop dancing, taking to the aisles during performances to imitate the dancers onstage. She describes herself during these years as living "in a cocoon." With few other children in her life and with the advent of television some years off, she lived in her imagination, acting out traditional stories and tales from Indian Mythology. Meanwhile, the country in which she lived was in the world spotlight, having only recently gained its independence. Hema's grandfather was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, so she grew up in an environment committed to social justice. Her family imbued her with a strong sense of right and wrong; her moral sense was deepened by education at a Catholic convent school.
"Hema captured the admiration of the audience with her excellent poise, supreme self confidence, innate sense of rhythm"
"”RASHMI, Sport and Pastime, 1957
For young Indians who showed promise as dancers, the stage was set for an artistic flowering. Artistically, Bharata Natyam had come to the fore as a result of the "renaissance" of the 1930s. This ancient art form now flourished as the pride of a new nation. Fortunately for Hema, her mother, although not a professional dancer herself, had studied Bharata Natyam and took her six-year-old daughter for instruction. Hema's first instructor or guru was Swarna Saraswati, who had been part of the devadasi tradition. The devadasis kept alive the ancient tradition of temple dancing during the period of British colonialism.
Imbued with natural and prodigious ability, after only six months of study, in the summer of 1956, Hema gave herarangetram, or solo debut performance, in a three-hour concert in front of an audience of artists, patrons and connoisseurs of the fine arts in Chennai's renowned Museum Theatre. After Hema's first Arangetram, the press wrote passionately about her performances.
Her family moved to Delhi, and Hema began learning under a new guru Dandayudapani Pillai and his brother. She gave a second arangetram at age nine, and by age ten, she was giving regular performances to packed houses and started touring the country professionally.
At the age of 18, she fell under the romantic attention of a young man named Rajagopalan, the nephew of some family friends. Hema's parents gave their consent to a marriage, on condition that Raja support Hema's dancing. The two married and for the next four years Raja worked for Indian Railways and Hema continued to perform widely.
"Not only was the artiste perfect in Laya (rhythm) but that in her Abhinaya there was sensitive portrayal of each Bhava (expression)"
The Hindu, 1957
Arriving in Chicago in 1974 with a Master's degree in nutrition, Hema tried to put aside her artistic ambitions and lose herself in her work at Loyola Hospital. Her time off from dancing lasted an unhappy six months, during which she grew concerned that there was a cultural void in the city, as Indian Americans truly did melt into the melting pot. While they tended to want to lose their identity, Hema was determined to light an inspirational fire, bring awareness of India's rich cultural heritage and bridge the cultural gap. Encouraged by a leading member of the Indian American community, she gave a folding chair performance at a community center. Afterwards, people from the audience approached her and asked if she would be willing to teach Bharata Natyam to their children. The question came as a surprise to Hema, who never had taught or even considered it. She called her guru, K.N. Dandayudapani Pillai, who urged her to take on students or disciples of her own. The importance of teaching the next generation became especially apparent when Hema had a child of her own named Krithika. Hema did not want her daughter to grow up unaware of Indian culture and the art form of Bharata Natyam.
Her first lessons were given in her home to two, sometimes three, students. The transition to teaching wasn't easy for Hema. Her own instruction felt long in the past; she had forgotten the process by which she herself had learned, but time and practice brought it back to her and honed her teaching skills. Becoming a teacher changed her and fed Hema's artistic growth. It made her want to educate herself and go deeper into understanding her art form. To this day, she considers herself a student to her art.
All the while, Hema kept dancing. In 1980, she brought her three-member orchestra to the U.S. from India for the first time, to accompany her own performances. From then on, she had undertaken two national tours with orchestra each year.
Assuming a leadership role, she encouraged local musicians in Chicago to pursue their own art in the greater Chicago area. The Indian community was becoming aware of the rich classical heritage of dance and music and how much they contributed to the spiritual path. Meanwhile, momentum was gathering in the Indian American community for construction of a temple. Two temples were inaugurated in 1986.Hema staged many fundraising performances for the temples- The Sri Rama temple in Lemont and the Sri Balaji Temple in Aurora. Hema along with Natya Dance Theatre helped promote several Dance and music events at the temples thus building cultural awareness. At the same time, she served on many arts panels, including the Illinois Arts Council beginning in 1980. She was Midwest Chair of the first Festival of India that took place in 1986, which brought art and science exhibitions from India to The Field Museum and The Museum of Science and Industry. Under Hema's leadership and guidance, this festival brought diverse local Indian American communities together. It set the precedent for the first international Bharata Natyam conference in the US that Natya Dance Theatre hosted in 2001 and then again in 2006.
"For me, dance is a way of life--a transcendental experience."
Strengthened by these successes, and bolstered by ArtsBridge, an incubator program housed in the Athenaeum Theatre building on Chicago's North Side Hema took the next challenging step forward and in 1995, officially launched Natya Dance Theatre (then Natyakalalayam) as a not-for-profit organization. She wanted to provide her students, some of whom had been with her for twenty years, with performance opportunities beyond their arangetram, so that time and talent no longer dispersed into the wind. As the company got on its feet, Hema formed partnerships with other Indian musicians in the Chicago area. She became an ambassador for Indian classical cultural practice to the community in Chicago.
Today, Hema continues as a teacher, artist, and a leader in the Indian cultural community firmly yet gently at the helm of her organization. The Natya Dance School guides hundreds of students through intensive training and cultural immersive experiences. The Natya Dance Theatre Company moves the art form in new directions through collaborations with other arts leaders, such as Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as national and international tours. In this regard, Natya, like Hema, presents the best of both the classical and contemporary, rooted in the past yet showing the way to new things to come.