Bharatnatyam dancer Narthaki Nataraj was awarded the Padma Shri this year, making her the first person from the transgender community to be receiving the fourth highest civilian award.
Talking about the same, Nataraj says, “I was halfway through my show at the Nishagandhi Dance Festival when the host came on the stage and announced that the Government has enlisted my name for the award. I was so surprised, elated and happy. Words could not express my happiness, only dance can. So I danced the rest of the show with even more enthusiasm.”
Born in the temple town of Madurai, Narthaki Nataraj breathes dance. It has been her medium of expression ever since she remembers. Her dancing journey started with giving three-five minute performances at small events and today, the dancer specialises in Thanjavur-based Nayaka Bhava tradition and is a known face of the dance form in India and abroad. Over the years, 54-year-old Nataraj has performed in leading festivals across India, USA, UK and Europe.
“As far back as I can remember, I was always interested in dance and wanted to dance to an appreciative audience and excel in my art,” says Nataraj who had no formal training at that point but would still give performances without letting her parents know. “I would give performances and wipe all traces of makeup before coming home fearing punishment,” she adds.
Eventually, it was an elderly relative who recognised her talent and took the responsibility to get her a good teacher. Nataraj was taken to Namanur Jeyaraman under whom she received her first formal training. Later, she became a disciple of the late K P Kittappa Pillai and received her training for 15 years.
But the journey wasn’t as smooth as it appears. Nataraj’s childhood was full of fear and confusion. “I have come up the hard way. I faced a lot of humiliations and fear in my younger days. From the time I knew what life was, the only things I experienced were taunts and rebukes. I was about seven years old and was unable to express myself the way I do now — with courage and conviction. I could not understand why I was different from the other boys. I could not express my thoughts and would remain silent. I used to dress up and dance in front of the mirror when no one is seeing. But there was always this search within me as to “Who am I and why am I like this?”. My grit and determination in getting the answer to this question have brought me where I am today. The desire to overcome the hurdles and shine was uppermost in my mind,” recalls Nataraj who started dancing watching old Tamil films and was a huge fan of actress and Bharatnatyam dancer Vyjayanthimala Bali.
“In fact, that’s how I reached Kittappa Pillai. I wanted to learn from the same Guru from whom she learnt,” she adds. But why Bharatnatyam? “I am a Tamizhian born in Madurai. Whatever I learn in my life, I relate it to the culture and traditions of our soil. So, it is natural that I took Bharatanatyam as it the dance of our land.”
On winning the Padma Shri, the Bharatnatyam dancer stresses that she didn’t get this award because she is a transgender, she got it because she is an artist.
“It is for my merit and talent and not for my physical differentiation,” she says and adds, “Gender, caste religion whatever it may be is only for the material being. You being male or female or a third gender is natural. You can’t change it. You don’t have to. It is your inner soul that you have to identify and determine. Only that matters.”
Nataraj further states that things are improving. “Recently my life story was added in a lesson to the 11th std students by Tamil Nadu educational board. I hope after reading my story parents and also the students will start being more friendly, understanding and supportive to their classmates and friends who are born like me.”
But is there anything she would want from the government for her community? “Be it government or the general public, the first thing we ask for is recognition. People should realise that we are as natural as others. We are also born from a mother’s womb. We also need a family. You have a quota for minority class based on caste and religion but there is no space for our community. If the government can give at least one per cent of quota for us in education and employment, we can definitely make a mark for ourselves and contribute to the upliftment of the society,” she concludes.