By Cara Jepsen
Hema Rajagopalan, founder of the Natyakalalayam Dance Company, moved to Forest Park from New Delhi in 1974, planning to stay only a short time while her husband studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology. While they weren’t exactly made to feel welcome (“I would be standing in the gas station and I would not be waited on unless everyone was gone”), they decided to stay, and Hema, who had been a promising bharatanatyam dancer in India, started teaching and performing. In the mid-70s, the students at the inner-city schools where she gave presentations didn’t know what to make of her or classical Indian dance and often laughed at her. “I felt it was through lack of education they were like that,” she says. “They had never seen a person like me. To them I was like someone who came from a zoo.”
She says other Indian immigrants she knew avoided confrontation by wearing Western clothes when they went out. “To be in tune with others, they would change their ways,” she says. “In the process they would lose their own values, their own traditions.”
Hema believed it was her responsibility to pass down those values to her daughter Krithika and started teaching her bharatanatyam, which takes 10 to 15 years to master, when Krithika was four. “The father is usually busy keeping the home and trying to fend for the home,” says Hema. “The mother is usually very much the person who has to, or who wants to, keep the cultural tradition alive.”
That idea is addressed in the new dance piece Amma (which means “mother” in several Indian languages), a collaboration between Natyakalalayam and the modern-dance company Hedwig Dances. The two companies worked together previously on 1995’s Conversation. For the new piece, which examines the experiences of immigrant mothers raising children in the U.S., Hema and Hedwig artistic director Jan Bartoszek interviewed scores of immigrant mothers from all over the world. “The mother undergoes the maximum strain in pulling everything together,” says Hema. “She’s at a crossroads, like in my life, whether to keep the traditional culture alive, or whether to keep the sanity of the child growing up in this country.” Amma, with an original score by Michael Zerang, is being performed at the Ruth Page Theater, Thursday through Sunday, May 18 through 21.
Krithika, who’s now 27, gave her first professional bharatanatyam performance when she was 14. “My friends thought I was very exotic–that when I was in public I wasn’t Indian, and in private I was. I had a public persona, pretending to be someone I wasn’t.” Around this time she began to balk at wearing a bindhi on her forehead and braiding her hair. “When you’re five, kids would say, ‘You’re different from me and that’s OK,'” she says. But as they become older, she notes, “children are a little bit more confused–I was confused. I wanted to be like everyone else. I didn’t want to be called names. I didn’t want to be called ‘dot head.’
“Luckily these dots come in stickers. You can put it on when you go to school, take it off and put it back.” When she forgot to reattach it, she would tell her mother the bindhi had fallen off in gym class.
Once she got to college, at Loyola University, Krithika made peace with her identity. “I addressed it by addressing people’s curiosity about it,” she says. “I said, ‘It’s OK for you to ask me what the dot is about and ask me about my heritage and wearing a sari and arranged marriages.’ It bridged my relationship with other people and with my mother. My friends helped me understand that it’s not just how people see you–it’s also how you see yourself. If you see yourself as someone who’s going to be cowardly about who you are, than that’s how they’re going to see you.”
Krithika also credits her mother’s patience and persistence with helping her come to that realization. “I’m proud to wear a dot and Indian clothes and know a lot about my culture. But I wouldn’t if I hadn’t fought with her and she hadn’t fought with me.”
How she came to that point forms a large part of the second section of Amma, for which Krithika was primary choreographer. She also dances–playing her mother–in the piece. “I think I’ll probably cry on Thursday when I do it,” she says. “I didn’t buy her a Mother’s Day gift, so this is it.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.