The soul is neither male nor female: Narthaki Nataraj

Beyond brackets: Narthaki Natraj in performance at the BVB festival in New Delhi

Beyond brackets: Narthaki Natraj in performance at the BVB festival in New Delhi   | Photo Credit: V_V_KRISHNAN


Bharatanatyam exponent Narthaki Nataraj believes in boldly questioning socio-cultural stereotypes and exploring multiple identities through dance

Surviving a childhood marred with rejection, it was a deep dive into dance that restored a sense of faith and direction for Bharatanatyam artiste, Narthaki Nataraj. As the first transgender Indian classical dancer to be awarded the Padma Shri earlier this year, she believes in boldly questioning socio-cultural stereotypes and exploring multiple identities through dance.

“It is important to accept our similarities and differences – man, woman or third gender, we are all searching for a glimpse of divinity in everyday life,” reflects Nataraj. Performing at Kamani auditorium in Delhi on the first day of the 11th Sangeet Samaroh of the Delhi chapter of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, she delved deeper into this metaphysical longing for the divine, through the Surdas Bhajan, “Re mann Krishna naam”. Playfully interpreting the composition as a conversation between two friends, she briskly changed roles to inquire whether one needs to have eyes to actually ‘see’ the supreme being.

The highlight of the evening was the varnam, “Thiruve! Thirumagale! Thaaye” in Ragamalika set to Aadi taalam. Composed by the dancer herself, the varnam was a rare one that poked conventional gender equations by focusing on the female, rather than the male deity.

Balanced with a flourish of footwork, the eight forms of Mahalakshmi were depicted with ease, thematically exploring absolute devotion or bhakti and the emotional state of the devotee.

The first step

Nataraj’s early foray into dance, began with another emotional search – the pursuit of happiness. “My only happy memories of childhood are of dancing secretly to songs from cinema,” recounts Nataraj. “Me and my friend, Sakthi (Bhaskar), have been together since we were five years old. She was my only trusted confidante and our companionship has been the support system for us throughout our lives.”

The two friends would sneak out to watch cinema in the village, gleaming with adulation for silver screen dancing stars like Padmini and Vyjayanthimala. Reflecting on the simmering passion for dance that underscored her life even as a child, she says, “I am not sure whether I dreamt of dancing like the heroines, but I do remember that only when I danced did I feel free, beyond any limitations, and accepted myself as who I am.”

Without any support from the family, and constantly heckled by the village community, the two friends set out to find a dance guru as teenagers. “I was rejected by my family and through my teenage days I struggled to make a living to survive and complete my schooling. I felt that no one wanted to listen to us, support us, or understand our struggles.” Punctuating each poignant sentence with a breezy chuckle, Nataraj chooses to forgive the days of insult and isolation with graceful ease now.

Dance was a safe haven for the duo, though they had not received any formal training till then. “I didn’t know the grammar of Bharatanatyam, or the aesthetics of the classical framework. Yet, while dancing I could feel my atman talking to me, I could express my feelings, my experiences, my identity.”

Amid social ridicule and identity crisis, at the age of 15, Nataraj and Bhaskar approached K P Kittappa Pillai – the doyen of the Thanjavur Bani, requesting him to teach them. At the outset, he refused. “We were so used to rejection by then that we took it in our stride. I had a huge inferiority complex and I assumed that we were again being rejected because of not fitting into the ‘normal’ gender identities. I realised much later that this was not the case, his reasons were different. He was testing whether we had any real passion for dance or it was a fleeting whim.”

For the entire year, the duo followed him around, going for all his performances. “Finally, he started noticing our dedication. When he would ask why we were at the concert, we would humbly touch his feet and say we came for his blessings.”

After a year, the guru accepted Nataraj and Bhaskar as disciples. For more than 14 years the duo trained with their guru, “We just concentrated on learning, without any thoughts of fame or name. A very rigorous teacher, my guru was like ‘Siddhapurusha’ in my eyes. He was relentless during practice and later taught us the rare repertoire of Thanjavur quartet compositions.”

Fielding a volley of insults in social life, Nataraj maintained a stoical approach, finding solace in dance. “Looking back today, I also find our determination for dance hard to understand. For most transgender people, their entire lives, thoughts and emotions revolve around this identity and the struggles it brings. We had those struggles too, but somehow our focus on dance never faltered.”

A path of one’s own

Nataraj’s interest in Tamil literature blossomed during the years of her dance training. This curiosity was fanned by questions about self and society that she found herself grappling with, in everyday life. “I remember that I used to think of myself as an animal, not a human being. Even though I belonged to a well-to-do family, they never accepted me. In fact, in the 1980s and 90s, it was a taboo to even discuss this with anyone. Everything operated on the ‘what will people say’ principle. My own relatives and community avoided talking to us in public, they would pretend not to know us, and we would feel absolutely alone and isolated.”

Turning to ancient Tamil literature to resolve the perplexing existential dilemma, Nataraj came across texts like “Silappathikaram” that she found extremely fascinating. “My basic question was, who am I? The ancient texts speculate on several approaches to this question. In literature, and in dance, this is an open question unlike fixed gender stereotypes that form our social norms.”

Deeper philosophical inquiries led her to explore and expand on the concept of ‘Nayaki Bhava’. Merging spiritual pursuits with artistic expression, Nataraj reflects, “The Nayaki Bhava is a divine transgender state. The soul is neither male nor female, and travels through infinity. While watching me dance, the audience mistakes me to be a beautiful woman. While I may be playing a nayika or heroine, I am not only that. Being the third gender is also a spiritual identity. The concept of the supreme power can be explored by shedding our social selves.”

Entering the world of dance as a performing artist had its own set of challenges. “In my initial days in the dance world I got rejection and insults from the community. I realised the only way to overcome that is through stage success and I was determined to prove my merit as a dancer.” Many decades and accolades later, Nataraj smiles at the harsh memories that fuelled her rise to fame.

An empowering future

“The younger generation are much more accepting and empathetic towards the third gender,” says Nataraj. “While we were shunned and rejected by our community, today, we have attempted to create our own community around the world to support people who are going through this struggle.”

Nataraj and Bhaskar established the Velliyambalam School of Dance, Chennai, with this objective in mind. “After my very long journey, my conclusion is that the third gender has been created specially for society and humanity. We don’t have any bond in this world since we cannot have progeny. In a way we are ‘swayambho’- self generated. And we constantly need to keep self-generating and self-sustaining our life, our self, our identity. My only appeal to the world is, we lost our childhood to pain and rejection, we have built our lives from scratch and held our victories, now we trust the world to keep us safe, and give us love and support.”

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 3:05:08 AM |

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