Narthaki Nataraj on following her guru, Kittappa Pillai

Not everyone needs to follow the trend to be noticed. Sometimes remaining steady brings the world to your feet. As it has to well known Bharatanatyam exponent Narthaki Nataraj. Recognised today for her moving Bharatanatyam performances, her contribution to the arts in the form of her flourishing school of dance, and her inspiring work in the service of people of the third gender, Narthaki has, through times of struggle as of triumph, retained one principle like a steady flame before her: an adherence to tradition and the approach to creativity fostered by her guru, the legendary K.P. Kittappa Pillai, descendent of the Tanjore Quartet.

“The rare compositions of the Tanjore Quartet, or the songs like the divya prabandas…my whole life is not enough to dance these and to pass them on to my students. So somehow, I can’t bring myself to be interested in the compositions of the new vaggeyakaras (composers). They may be very good in terms of vidwat (skill and knowledge), but I don’t find them inspiring.”

Abhinaya apart, she says, “We cannot aspire to create jatis as good as those of Kittappa Pillai.”

Narthaki does create new compositions too. “I could not learn everything from my guru — no one can. But I think of what he would have done, how he would have approached it. I never want the ‘Narthaki touch’ to come. I want him to be invisibly there. I keep thinking what he would do, what he would say if I dance, compose, teach in a particular way. But I do use only his jatis, no matter what I do.”

As for understanding the lyrics of the traditional compositions, Narthaki points out that the situations described in these songs should not be taken “as a normal thing” and that their “gauravam” (gravitas) needs to be preserved.

It is important to teach young artists in the way the senior gurus taught, she says. When she and others have had the good fortune to learn under good gurus, what excuse is there to deviate, she asks.

Soul's longing

“Innovation should not take us away from the inner meaning,” says Narthaki, explaining that a varnam is a symbolic representation of the human soul longing for union with the Supreme. “Their ragas are Saveri, Kamboji, Yadukulakamboji, etc. Samanya ragas are not used (in the old vaóams). Whether the varnam is from the Shaiva or Vaishnava sampradaya, they all have the same meaning.”

The soul, represented as the Nayika, is engaged in an endeavour to reach the Swami or Lord, “to create a bridge to reach God,” she says. And how is this union possible? “Moksha means don’t search for God, He is within you. So when you purify yourself again and again, you become the Swami,” says Narthaki.

Into the philosophical theme are woven experiences of human life and longing. In it, we find all the rasas: ascharyam, sringaram, hasyam, et al, says the dancer, who received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2011 for her contribution to Bharatanatyam.

A code is to be maintained in elaboratingthe abhinaya, she notes. “We have different hand gestures for the Lord, depending on whether we are showing Shiva of Madurai, Chidambaram, Thiruchengode, Kapalishwara, or Tiruvarur. We should use only these hand gestures. And according to each epithet, we use different gestures, say, Vishwanathan, Sundareshwara. In our tradition this is how we teach.”

She also cites a padam of Swati Tirunal, “Kamini Mani”, one of her much appreciated performances. In it the sakhi asks the nayika why her face is sweating, why her hair is dishevelled, the vermilion on her forehead disturbed, and so on. Making excuses like the strong wind and hot sun, she is caught by her sakhi, who says, “I can see His chakra in your eyes, His tulasi in your hair.” Then, says Narthaki, the sakhi promises the Nayika to bring her Lord to her.

“The philosophy is that really the sakhi herself is the hero,” remarks Narthaki, adding, “The Kuravanji (dance theatre form of Tamil Nadu) philosophy too is this...the actual hero is the kurati (the soothsayer who appears in all Kuravanji dramas).”

People today want “overnight fame,” she finds. “They don’t want to go in-depth. They show adavus like aerobics and make people happy in an instant. You notice they talk for half an hour.” However, she observes, just as audiences’ response to her when she performs old javalis and padams is one of delight, she also finds that “in workshops by Margi Madhu (Kudiyattam exponent) and Jaya Teacher (senior Bharatanatyam guru N.S. Jayalakshmi), people are taking great interest. Such teachers are tapasvis. They know so much.”

Narthaki’s view of classical dance is, “It is not just makeup and body work. People come from so far to see it. If we don’t keep that in mind, what will be the result?”