The art of angika abhinaya: Hema teaches Aisha Wadhwani the subtleties of Bharata Natyam’s disciplined use of hand and body gestures to express the emotions and meanings of a piece
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Hema Rajagopalan’s lifetime of dance and teaching goes far beyond art—it is the powerful transmission of cultural and spiritual values to the next generation



I BEGAN LEARNING BHARATA NATYAM with Hema Rajagopalan in the Chicago suburbs at age 17, about the age when many of her students would move on to college and Bharata Natyam would be displaced in their lives with different priorities. Now, over twenty years later, I am bringing my daughter to Hema Auntie for classes. As a Punjabi, raised in the tradition of the Sikh gurdwara, and an older beginning student, I have had a unique perch from which to observe the tradition of learning this South Indian classical dance and the benefits it bestows on the student and family. I discovered that learning a classical art is not some outmoded “orthodox” practice—a mindset that is a relic of my Punjabi-Delhi influenced thinking—but rather a dynamic and standard part of life for many Hindus.

“Why Bharata Natyam?” friends would ask. “Why not Kathak? And how do you understand the language?” I like the athleticism of Bharata Natyam, particularly in the style taught by Hema Auntie. Students trained by her are easily identifiable by their strong postures, clean movements and stamina. As for learning songs in languages wholly unfamiliar to me, it was no different than when I began to learn the piano.

But overall, what drew me to Bharata Natyam for myself and my daughter is the fact that it is a beautiful tool through which any aspect of Hinduism can be delved into. That same spiritual quest is at the heart of Hema Auntie’s pursuit of her art. She has had hundreds of students since beginning her dance school (which now goes by the name Natya Dance Theatre) in the mid-1970s. Her devotion to and success with her art has been well documented. But deserving equal recognition is the spiritual guidance she provides. Over the years she has cultivated and maintained deep relationships with many of her students and their families. I asked her what teaching children has taught her—especially seeing them through their most formative years. What could she share with me to help me with my kids?

“All of my students have been good children,” Auntie says. Considering the number of teenagers she has taught, I wondered if this were possible. But if you go through the roster of Hema Auntie’s former students and see what they are doing now, having a solid education and a productive and satisfying career seem to be directly connected with graduating from Hema Auntie’s dance school. She explained, “It’s the power of the art form. The lyrics and the episodic stories teach us.” She is positive about this. I remember typical preparation for weekly class with Hema Auntie would include practicing pure dance and also studying and practicing expressional dance at home. This second task required us to first memorize the English translation of the lyrics of the compositions, understanding and absorbing the meaning of those words. After that, we memorized and mastered the expressional choreography. It is a truly meditative exercise, where the dancer becomes the angry Yashoda, the naughty Krishna, the patient Sabari waiting for Lord Ram, or the lovelorn heroine pining for her divine lover. This highly disciplined practice affirms the concept of Hindu philosophy as a way of life, not as an isolated component of life. Contrast this with attending a weekly Bollywood dance class—certainly less rigorous and occasionally more fun— which leads to a weaker spiritual foundation.

Stories told with hands: (left) As a youth, Hema portrays a character looking in a mirror; (right) vignette of a lady adorning herself with earrings
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Aside from engaging with a classical art form, I asked Hema about other techniques to make spiritual practice palatable to children. How do we transfer the teachings of those lyrics and episodic stories to our daily lives? “Create and maintain rituals and routines,” advises Hema Auntie. “The supposed mundane, everyday tasks are the key to bhakti and cultivating devotion within the heart. Many of our devotional compositions, including those used for Bharata Natyam pieces, are about hoping for and experiencing the Divine as we go about our everyday lives. A child can begin with simple, manageable tasks such as making his bed in the morning, picking up his dishes after eating, and so on. An adult devotee can resolve to keep his house clean. If the bed is not made or the house is not clean one day, then the habit begins to form and subsequent days begin not to matter. Engaging in ritual exercises will cultivate the bhakti and clear our mind in order to arrive at an understanding of why we make our bed, pick up after ourselves, and keep our home clean.”

Modest, tradition-influenced dress is another easily manageable tool for children and parents. “Other communities have outward signs of their membership—Jews, Sikhs—why not Hindus?” Hema Auntie asks. She remembers her daughter’s resistance to wearing a bindi every day to school. But as a parent, she continued to wear traditional clothes and set an example for her daughter. She says, “Hindu philosophy is not constrictive. Every household can practice in its own way.”

Ultimately, what has helped her students is their education in basic values. For all of us, the goal should be to become well-versed in our values and the history of their establishment. “One should always be on a quest, always persevering. Being fundamentally equipped with knowledge doesn’t happen overnight. Children should go out, explore, question,” Hema Auntie says. “We should strive to be sensitive to our surroundings and connected and empathetic with others. That is one way in which we shed the ego.” But she says children also need explicit delineations of what is wrong and right. “This is where having a strong foundation in our scriptures, our values, is critical. They help the parents to teach and the children to learn. They help us to realize and experience a divine presence. And just as it happens for me, when children are tuned into that presence, answers will fall into place.”

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A dedicated life: In 1956, at the age of six, Hema made her first public performance in Chennai, keeping her audience spellbound for three hours. She and her husband came to Chicago in 1974. Concerned by the cultural void she found, she began teaching dance to Indian-American girls in her living room. Three decades later, a grandmother and still strong at 62, her home classroom has become a full-fledged Bharata Natyam school and a dance company internationally renowned for integrity of tradition and choreographic innovation. see: []
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Author: Sonia Kumar, 38, is a full-time mother of three who writes in her spare time. Read her blog at [] Her first children’s book will be published in early 2013.
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