When Hema Rajagopalan was about 5 years old, growing up in 1950s India, she loved dancing so much that when her parents took her to performances, she would leap from her seat and twirl in the aisles. She'd put on such a display that the audience would turn its attention away from the stage to her.
She grew up, became an accomplished dancer performing around the world, and moved to Chicago in 1974. She opened a dance academy in the Forest Park home she shared with her husband and daughter.
All those people coming to her home for classes. All of them vying for her mother's attention. Those sentiments changed when she was about 11 and had her first big performance. While on stage, she began to feel what her mother felt years before as a child dancing in the aisles.
"I loved being up there and not because of the applause," said Krithika Rajagopalan, 38. "On stage, I was in the moment and I could suddenly feel the music and the magic of the dance. I just loved the space."
Mother and daughter — Krithika Rajagopalan also has performed internationally — run the Natya Dance Theatre. At 37 years old, it's Chicago's oldest dance troupe rooted in bharata natyam, an ancient dance style of southern India.
It's a colorfully costumed style that's neither ballet nor modern dance — and yet some moves will put you in the mind of both. The body and hands flow in a fluid, stylized fashion and are accompanied by percussive barefoot footwork and expressive facial gestures.
"The way my mother teaches it, she takes it to Western audiences without destroying the integrity of the art form," said Krithika Rajagopalan. "Her goal is to make bharata natyam accessible to people of other races and ethnicities, as well as to young Indian kids who may not think classical dance is for them."
Hema Rajagopalan said it takes about 10 years for a performer to develop into a consummate artist.
"It's the movement of the body that's important, but the emotional capability of the dancer has to mature too" she said. "This is theater and dance, so an artist has to express themes in terms of body movements and gestures and facial expressions. And sometimes how well an artist can do that depends on the artist's (life) experience."
Last weekend, Natya Dance Theatre put on a one-night show, "The Flowering Tree." It's a folk tale — a love story — that uses dance to examine class discrimination, the preservation of nature and female empowerment. All are themes about which Hema Rajagopalan cares deeply.
She told me that when it was time for her to marry, her parents so believed in her talent that they wanted to make sure her husband-to-be supported and respected her art.
"It was important to them that any man I married help keep my art alive," said Hema Rajagopalan, 60. "My mother loved to dance but she was not a performer. She said that since I was very young, I was absorbing dance like a blotting paper, so she had to get me formal training."
In India, dance conveys cultural values.
"Going to dance performances and enjoying music was so important, like food to some people," she said. "Organizations had their own auditoriums, and dance and music was part and parcel of everyday life."
But when she and her husband moved to Chicago so that he could complete postgraduate work, she said, many of the Indian immigrants she met appeared to be assimilating at the expense of their culture.
"They wanted to melt into the melting pot," she said. "I felt that you could still be a citizen of America but keep your identity because that's what makes America unique in its tapestry, its cultures and colors.
"Someone approached me about giving a performance, and my musician would come from India and we'd give performances in Chicago and in other cities. It was an education and cross-cultural experience."
She stopped performing in 1994 but continued to develop her academy and dance company. Around the same time, Krithika Rajagopalan was in college, completing a finance degree. She said she had a lucrative corporate job and would devote her weekends, sick days and vacation days to dance.
"All of a sudden, I said to myself, 'I want my world of art,'" she said. "I can always go back to a corporate job, but I can't always go back to my art. I was 27 and I resigned. Sometimes we think our art will wait for us and sometimes it does, but when you're in that moment, you're just very much in it."
She said that she and her mother closely manage every aspect of a production. They help choreograph the dances as well as write and/or edit the music and the scripts.
"As a mother-daughter team working on so many things, we're always tugging at different corners of the earth," said Krithika Rajagopalan, who still acts and dances in some productions. "We cover aspects I never knew we would. But it always works as a cohesive product at the end. It's such a crazy process."
The dance academy is now run out of Hema Rajagopalan's Oak Brook home as well as from studios in Downers Grove, Naperville and downtown Chicago. Krithika Rajagopalan, who lives in New York, teaches in Chicago and in several cities along the East Coast.
Krithika Rajagopalan said her 31/2-year-old daughter accompanies her to dance class, but she doesn't yet take formal lessons.
"My daughter right now will watch the performance and dance in the aisle the entire show," said Krithika Rajagopalan. "I can tell you that I'm a great teacher, and I make an impact, but the best teacher is still my mother. When it's time, I want my daughter to learn from the best, and my mother is the best around."