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An Interview with Hema Rajagopalan
by Padma Chebrolu

Oct 2001

In 1975, choreographer and dancer Hema Rajagopalan founded Natya Dance Theatre (NDT) in Chicago as a school to teach Bharata Natyam. Twenty years later, her students had developed into fine dancers. With the community's support she expanded her school into a non-profit organization encompassing the school and the dance company.
Artistic Director: Hema
Asst. Artistic Director: Krithika
Artistic Director: Hema
Asst. Artistic Director: Krithika

NDT maintains four program areas including:
· A school, based in Chicago that teaches the classical dance of India to 200 children and adults from throughout the region and United States.
· A professional touring company of 20 dancers and four musicians that perform original work. NDT presents workshops and lectures at schools and universities, libraries and community centers throughout the greater Chicago area.
· An outreach program that provides educational programs and performances to schools, libraries, museums and other community organizations for nominal fees or free-of-charge.
· A presenting series that brings prominent Indian dancers and performing artists from around the world to give performances in the Chicago area.

Hema recently ( September 6 - 9, 2001) conducted a monumental task of bringing many dancers and experts in the field from many countries to answer two fundamental questions at Bharathanatyam in the Diaspora:

· How can we adapt ourselves and this dance form to our new surroundings?
· How can we keep this tradition alive, rather than statically preserving it?

This conference touched upon the spiritual, classical and contemporary aspects of Bharathanatyam that are combined in unique and aesthetically powerful ways to make Bharathanatyam an ambassador of Indian values throughout the world.

This event hosted several conferences, review discussion panels, performances, workshops, showcases, and keynote addresses. The committee that organized the event included:

Bonnie Brooks
Joan Erdman
Hema Rajagopalan
Krithika Rajagopalan
Phil Reynolds

Some of the participants of this event were:
Bonnie Brooks, Chair, The Dance Center of Columbia College, Chicago, USA
C.V. Chandrasekhar, Dancer/Choreographer, India
Ananya Chatterjee, Assistant Professor of Dance, University of Minnesota, USA
Wendy Doniger, Professor of Religion, University of Chicago, USA
Joan Erdman, Professor of Anthropology, Columbia College, Chicago, USA
Anne Marie Gaston, Scholar, Canada
Sunil Kothari, Scholar, India
Susan Manning, Professor, Northwestern University, USA
Sadanand Menon, Journalist, India
Laura Molzahn, Critic, USA
Sonal Mansingh, Internationally Renowned Dancer
Jane Oldfield, Executive Director, McAninch Arts Center, USA
Lata Pada, Art Director, Sampradaya, Canada
Anita Ratnam, Choreographer, Dancer, India
Pialy Ray, Director, Sampad South Asian Arts, UK
Menaka Thakkar, Adjunct Professor of Dance, York University, Canada
Leela Venkataraman, Critic, India
Anna Paskevska, Educator, Trained in Ballet at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts
Katherine Kunhiraman, Artistic Dir of Kalanjali Dance Academy, San Francisco
Ramaa Bharadwaj, Artistic Dir of Angahara Ensemble
Shakti Chakra - Natya Dance Theatre

I had the pleasure of interviewing Hema Rajagopalan to understand what inspired her to undertake this effort, the logistics and what her thoughts are on the outcome.

Padma: What prompted you to conduct this event? Why was it so important to bring all the Bharata Natyam dancers from many countries together?
Hema: In the course of my performances as a soloist as well as Natya dance Theatre's performances for diverse audiences at various international venues for the past 25 years, my single innermost quest has been to keep this tradition alive while adapting it to new audiences. This goal combined with a growing awareness of the many different ways that Bharata Natyam is being taught and practiced throughout the Diaspora and in its home of India, inspired me to think of a conference of this nature two years ago.

Padma: How were the dance companies, dancers and panelists chosen for this conference? What kind of criteria you had in mind?
Hema: The Dance Companies, Dancers and panelists were selected on the basis of artistic excellence, merit, relevance of their contribution to the conference, and their scholarship by an advisory committee.

Padma: To organize an event of this proportion, you must have had many other organizations and individuals helping you. Who are they?
Hema: The conference itself was hosted by The Dance Center of Columbia College. The Board of Natya Dance Theatre, The Chair of The Dance Center of Columbia College - Bonnie Brooks, Executive Director of The Dance Center - Phil Reynolds, Dr.Joan Erdman - Professor at Columbia College, and Krithika Rajagopalan Ex Director of Natya Dance Theatre along with several volunteers made the event a big success.

Padma: Of course, funding is also very crucial for the success of the event. Many dance organizations struggle with this aspect. Your organization seems to have received many grants in the past. Who offered the grants for this event?
Hema: Major funding was provided by The Rockefeller Foundation, The Illinois Arts Council, The Chicago Community Trust, National Endowment for The Arts, The Mc Arthur Foundation. Additional funding was provided by Air India, United Airlines, ICCR, Sara Lee Foundation, and individual donors.

Padma: Are you satisfied with the outcome of this event? Are there any aspects that you would like to enhance next time, assuming you'll organize this kind of conference in the future?
Hema: I am extremely satisfied with the outcome of the conference. I have been getting a lot of feedback from conference attendees as well as panelists who felt it was a very rewarding experience and was very educational as well.

Padma: Where do you get the energy to come up with one event after another?
Hema: Where do I get the energy? I am not sure but I certainly have great faith in God.

Padma: I see you as one of the world-class dancer, teacher and choreographer. One other aspect that amazes me about you is that you have been very successful with your company, funding and organizing events. Seems as though you can do it all. How is this possible?
Hema: You are very kind with your compliments. Thank You! I think being focused and working hard diligently is the answer to accomplishing goals.

Padma: What kind of thoughts would you like to pass onto to our readers/professional dancers who would like to be as successful as you have been?
Hema: One must dream big and work towards it.

Hema Rajagopalan is the artistic director of Natya Dance Theatre based in Chicago. You can reach her at and the website is

Padma Chebrolu is the artistic director of Cultural Centre of India based in Cincinnati. You can reach her at