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September 27, 1999
Dancing The Immigrant Experience
Shanthi Shankarkumar in Chicago
Twenty-five years ago when Hema Rajagopalan first moved to America from India, she was appalled by the attitude of some members of the Indian community here. They were ashamed to call themselves Indians and tried pathetically to be as American as possible, she recalls.
So disgusted was Rajagopalan by their refusal to acknowledge the richness of their culture and heritage that she was determined to remedy this situation. And what better way was available to her than dance?
A professional Bharata Natyam dancer, she went ahead and started one of the earliest Indian dance schools in the Midwest.
Initially, the students came in a trickle, averaging just six a year, but over the years as her reputation and repertoire grew, so did the students. Now nearly 150 to 180 students pass through her portals every year.
Natyakalalayam is now a premier dance school in Illinois drawing students not only from the Midwest but also from the east coast and Canada.
"Through my teaching I'm educating and infusing our culture, traditions and philosophy in children and adults," says Rajagopalan, who is the founder and artistic director. The school also sponsors visiting Indian artists and is involved in producing shows about immigrant Indian experiences.
Two of Rajagopalan's star students, Jennifer Sabarirayan and Akhila Sasi, went onto to make it big in the dance world. Sabarirayan was a Presidential scholar in Arts and was invited to have breakfast with President Reagan. She now runs her own dance school in Chicago.
As part of the National Talent Search, Sasi was one of the 20 finalists (from thousands of applicants) to be flown to Miami where a panel of eight judges ranked the dancers on four levels. The top level gets a dance award of $ 3,000. Sasi was one such lucky recipient.
Eighteen-year-old Sasi has been learning dance from Rajagopalan for the past 12 years. "Hema aunty is one of the best choreographers and teachers," she says. "The school has improved a lot since it was first started. I would rate it as the best dance school in the US."
While Rajagopalan's teaching skills are unquestionable, her talent as a choreographer has brought her acclaim from the critics and audiences. She is the recipient of the prestigious dance choreography award given by the National Endowment for the Arts not once but seven times, besides other awards both from India and the US.
"My productions have gained in reputation because I have borrowed elements from modern dance and ballet," she says. "Bharata Natyam has the scope to include all these elements. I've received the award for choreography seven times because my dance is so creative."
Natyakalalayam became an incorporated non-profit organization in 1995. The company took wings and went across America and India giving performances. Before that it had staged numerous dance dramas in Chicago.
Over the years it has organized fund-raisers for various beneficiaries, including the Balaji temple at Aurora, the Hindu temple at Lemont and the Vivekananda Vedanta Society.
The company's first professional dance drama, Shakti Chakra went onto win an Emmy in 1995 when it was staged on PBS as part of a World Stage Chicago Festival called 'Energy Cycle'. It was also staged at the Ravinia festival.
In September this year, the company performed it at the prestigious Open House Festival at the John F Kennedy Center in Washington. The only Indian presence at the festival, it shared the stage with other big names like the Kirov Ballet from Russia, the Washington Opera and violinist Itzak Perleman. The dance production is now touring American cities.
It portrays five divine cyclical activities of God -- the powers of creation, sustenance, protection, purification and dissolution. Each one of these five powers is interpreted through a combination of pure and expressional dance.
Blending the Bharata Natyam format with social themes, Rajagopalan has choreographed and produced dance dramas like Ahimsa which traces the history of violence from the time of the Mahabharata to present-day Kosovo and Kashmir, and Dance of Life, a multi-religion presentation, exploring stories and themes from various religions.
But perhaps Rajagopalan's greatest success lies in her uncanny ability to tailor her productions to suit the tastes of an audience that consists of both Americans and Indians. Her interpretations are bold and dramatic and appeal to the sensibilities of an audience that is open to experimentation.
The company is collaborating with the Trinity Dance company and Hedwig dancers on a production called Amma which delves into the psyche of immigrant mothers -- how they deal with their children, how they integrate with society here and other dilemmas faced by an average immigrant mother.
"We are trying to bring about social change through our dance productions. We like doing new ideas and themes through Bharata Natyam, which make for more meaningful dance," says Rajagopalan.
Working toward that goal, the company sponsors performers from India and has brought over well-known artists like Malavika Sarukkai and Venpatti Chinnaswamy. This year it has sponsored the ongoing tours of Mahabharatam, staged by the Dhananjayans' dance company, Bharata Kalanajali and violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaram's recitals with his son and daughter.
The Natyakalayam Dance Company, Athaneum Theater Building, 2936 N Southport, Suite 210, Chicago, IL-60657. For information, call (773) 296-1061 or (630)-323-7835; fax: (773) 907-2184; or e-mail email@example.com
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