Friday Review

Varna like none other

Hema Rajagopalan.

Hema Rajagopalan.   | Photo Credit: 30dfrkothari

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Chicago-based Natya Dance Theatre’s three-day dance festival was a testimony to Hema Rajagopalan’s hard work and persistence.

Forty years for a dance institution offering Bharatanatyam training in Chicago is an important landmark. Natya Dance Theatre (NDT) of the renowned Bharatanatyam dancer Hema Rajagopalan celebrated a three-day dance festival at Dance Centre of Columbia University that drew large audience comprising American and Indian Diaspora. It was obvious that Hema has a faithful following not only among the NRIs but also among the Americans.

Titled Varna – Colours of White, concept and choreography by Hema, with original music by Rakumar Bharathi, rhythmic arrangements by G. Vijayraghavan, lyrics by Sanskrit and Telugu poet, scholar Dr Pappu Venugopal Rao, and lights designed by Dustin Derry, the dance festival (21-23 October) to celebrate four decades of Natya Dance Theatre saw a very high standard of choreographic works by Hema and her daughter Krithika Rajagopalan.

Ardhanari as a group presentation with chanting of Om Namah Shivaya, using poems of Subramanya Bharati, Arunachal Kavi and G. Vijayraghavan, had an evocative mood. Clean lines, uncluttered movements, suggestive duality of male and female form, dancers moving in seamless manner showed excellent training and flawless execution. In Prapancham – the Universe of Colours, the metaphor of the poet found felicitous expression describing Prakriti as mother/Purush as father/Prakriti as flower/Purush as fragrance, Prakriti as field and Purusha as seed.

The highlight indeed were two numbers: Sita In Reflection performed with consummate artistry by Krithika with heart wrenching pain of Sita, reliving moments of her life conversing with her thoughts, questioning Ram for abandoning her. Recalling her birth, following him in forest, Ravan’s abducting her, pushing her in fire, coming out unscathed to prove her chastity, but in the end left in fire of separation! The suggestive use of Kshetragna’s padam Payyada was most moving. The lighting for fire was imaginative.

In Mara, the six evils, their dominating nature as in the story of Indra seducing Ahalya and curse by sage Gautama, and in narrative of Lord Buddha, overcoming them, when Mara accepts the defeat, it was performed with sensitivity. The departure from traditional costumes designed by Sandhya Raman was appropriate. So dance sans ankle bells as the foot work was in perfect sync with the rhythm.

On the third evening, Hema made a rare appearance performing the agony of a mother as seen in Sangam poem with subtle abhinaya. Her entire body pained by baseless rumours that her son whom she had sent to war, had run away, with a dagger in his back, from the war field. She could not believe or bear it. She wants to look for his body and found that the dagger was in front of his chest. She felt proud of her son and took him on her lap singing lullaby! So moving was the abhinay that the audience gave her spontaneously a standing ovation. She also danced in Pancha raga tillana with dancers of her company bringing down the house.

Trained by late Padma Shri Dandayuthpani Pillai in Chennai, Hema moved to Chicago 40 years ago. What was a loss to the Indian classical Bharatanatyam dance scene was indeed a gain for Chicago. “When I gave a Bharatanatyam performance for the first time in Chicago, no one understood it as a classical dance form par excellence. It was treated as ethnic dance form,” says Hema. There was little awareness about classical Bharatanatyam in those years.

Like most Indian Diaspora dancers who moved to the U.S., Hema too started teaching to children of NRIs struggling against all odds. But persistence paid. Her insistence on strict Dandayuth bani, style, hard work and support from parents helped Hema gain confidence. Twenty years of training young dancers showed commendable results.

Arangetrams became the order of the day with musicians coming from Chennai providing excellent music.

“When I look back, I realise that had I lost courage, I would not have reached this stage. If I have received the awards it was not just manna from the heaven. I am aware of years of frustration, tears and relentless work. There are no short cuts to success.” Hema is evidently pleased with a string of awards: Emmy award for the PBS production of World Stage Chicago, seven National Endowment for the Arts Choreography Awards, highest ever received by any American choreographer. And in wake of it in India, she won Vishwa Kala Bharati award in Chennai.

Since then she has never looked back. She also organised international dance seminars and festivals in Chicago, in 2001 and 2006, bringing stalwarts including abhinaya exponent Kalandhi Narayanan, Kalakshetra alumni C.V.Chandrashekhar, Dhananjayans, Leela Samson, Malavika Sarukkai and contemporary work of Chandralekha for performances and workshops. Participants included Sonal Mansingh, Anita Ratnam, Kumudini Lakhia’s disciple Prashant Shah and Priyadarshini Govind.

Interaction with American dancers and scholars like Professor Joan Erdman, Wendy Doniger, AK Ramanujan, and other academicians created quite an awareness among all involved about the high standards and excellence Hema had achieved. No wonder the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana honoured her as the first America-based dancer with Nritya Seva Mani award.

Her NDT became a centre for collaboration with international artists. Highlight of those were performances with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble before an audience of 13,000 in Chicago’s Millennium Park and at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, hers was the only company selected for creating an original work.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 6:18:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/varna-like-none-other/article7819180.ece

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