Narthaki Nataraja, recipient of this year's Sangeet Natak Akademi award for Bharatanatyam tells Chitra Swaminathan how dance has empowered her to break barriers
“I danced for identity, I danced for a living… and now I dance for my soul. Bharatanatyam bore me in its womb and I was born again as Narthaki Nataraj.”
Recipient of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi award that was announced last week, Narthaki has found succour and success in art. Dance has made her life meaningful and creative expressions have brought out her suppressed emotions. “Every such recognition and reward (she received the Nritya Choodamani title in 2009) helps me put all the ridicule and rejection I faced behind me. It's like journeying through a long dark tunnel and suddenly sighting the light,” says Narthaki in a delightfully chaste Madurai Tamizh.
She was just 10 when she fell out of step with the world and realised she was born in the wrong body. The happy years of childhood came to an abrupt halt. Till then Narthaki thought she was born to enjoy the verdant fields, the pristine ponds and the hoary temples in her small village near Madurai that were her playground and stage. She would wait excitedly for the moving theatre, which she refers to as her first guru, to visit the village. Hooked to the dance sequences in films, she would watch them intently and enact them the next day for friends, particularly for her “uyir thozhi” Shakti. “She remains my finest admirer and worst critic. We share not just our love for song and dance but our pain and humiliation too.”
They were very young when they began to have conflicting feelings about their gender. As their behaviour went against stereotypical expectations, they were gawked and giggled at by neighbours. Their families were embarrassed. As twelve year olds, the two saw their world crumbling down. They were forced to leave home and didn't know where to go. They took up menial jobs to fight hunger, though they belonged to well-to-do families. But even in those trying times, Narthaki was desperate to get back to dance. “Nothing could come in the way of my love for dance. It brought me closer to the woman in me,” she says, clad in a smart raw silk kurti and black leggings. “I had the urge to dress-up since childhood. But it became my undoing, you see. I would hide the make-up kit from my family. The way I look now was not how I was. All this came about with a lot of effort. I follow a strict regimen of diet, exercise and dance,” she smiles.
An ardent fan of Vyjanthimala's dance, she read about her training under the celebrated guru Kittappa Pillai and decided to go to him. “Looking back, I think it was audacious to dream of becoming his disciple. I would pray fervently to Nataraja, the god of dance. Finally, I landed at his doorstep, narrated my story and pleaded with him to accept me as his sishya. After almost a year he agreed and offered me and Shakti a place in his gurukulam. He even gave me the name ‘Narthaki Nataraj'. And at last, my chaotic life found rhythm.”
For 15 years she trained really hard to prove to her guru that she was a worthy disciple who could make a place for herself in this world. Today, she is one of the foremost performers of Bharatanatyam's famed Thanjavur bani. “Honestly, I least expected dance to empower me to achieve what I have — performing around the world at prestigious venues, awards, appreciation and also recognition as a teacher.”
She started her school Narthaki Nritya Kalalaya to take forward her guru's aesthetic vision. The school was first set-up in Madurai and when she moved to Chennai in 2000 she launched the Valliambalam School of Dance. Her school also has branches in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada. Besides, she has been conducting annual workshops at the government department of music in Oslo. At the workshops Shakti and Narthaki teach Indian and Norwegian students the Thevaram, Thiruppugazh and Thiruvasagam. “I have a passion for Tamil language and literature. I have a huge collection of rare Tamil books which I refer to when working on dance productions. I wanted to complete my education but regret not being able to do so. But I will always be grateful to my guru and many well-wishers such as Revathy Sankaran, who at least helped me put my best foot forward. More than empathy, people like me need opportunities,” says Narthaki.
She feels due to the efforts of many NGOs there is an increased awareness about transgenders but benefits hardly reach them. Poverty, starvation and humiliation turn them into beggars and sex workers. “I often get frantic calls from youngsters, contemplating suicide unable to come to terms with their condition. What they need is acceptance and support from parents, friends and neighbours,” says Narthaki, whose life has given a new definition to art — breaking caste, cultural, geographical and gender barriers.