‘I am not just a transgender Bharatanatyam artiste,’ says Narthaki Nataraj

As Pride month draws to a close, Narthaki Nataraj speaks about how dance healed her scars, which is why she believes that art can empower the transgender community

As Pride month draws to a close, Narthaki Nataraj speaks about how dance healed her scars, which is why she believes that art can empower the transgender community

It was the year 2011. Dressed in a bright orange kurti and black leggings, Narthaki Nataraj walked into a Chennai cafe for an interview, along with her thozi (friend) Shakti. She hesitantly ordered a cold coffee, unsure if she would like it. During the course of the conversation, one could sense her vulnerability and anxiety as she spoke about the trauma of being genderqueer, and facing hate, rejection and ridicule.

Cut to June 20, 2022. As I enter Ezhilagam at Chepauk in Chennai, Narthaki Nataraj’s secretary ushers me into her office on the fifth floor. Clad in a crisp red cotton sari, there’s an air of confidence about her as she discusses the details of a meeting with her staff. She requests her secretary to get some tea. As one of the eight members of the State Development Policy Council, she now helps frame social and cultural policies. It is the first time an artiste has been appointed on the advisory board.

From being forced to leave home at the age of 12 to fulfilling her dream of training in Bharatanatyam under guru Kittappa Pillai (who gave her the name ‘Narthaki Nataraj’) and rising to become a prominent representative of the Thanjavur bani to holding an influential position in the government, Narthaki Nataraj’s journey seems surreal.

Art as an anchor

“When I look back, I see myself trudging through a pitch-dark tunnel with no light in sight. The bitterness of the past taught me to gather my crumbling spirit to find myself beyond my non-binary identity,” says Narthaki, explaining why she believes that dance is a valuable space for gender exploration. “When I first went up on stage to perform and heard the sound of applause echo through the hall, I felt I was reborn. I stopped viewing my body as a prison. I found succour in the art, in being able to freely express both masculine and feminine emotions in the compositions.”

The dancer has been supporting young members of her community, helping them gain dignity and acceptance by finding a purpose in life. “Each one of us is born with a skill, I just tell them to look within. Feeling lesser or helpless will only worsen our status further. Though its heartening to see the growing awareness about gender issues and people coming out in the open about their sexual orientation, we need to amplify trans-voices to shape a better future for trans youth. We need to speak for ourselves rather than being spoken for. As a known name today, I am careful about choosing and supporting LGBTQ causes because, sometimes, they are more about objectification and tokenism than reaching out genuinely to the community,” she says.

Narthaki Nataraj performing at the Music Academy in Chennai
| Photo Credit: RAVINDRAN R

In 2019, Narthaki was awarded the Padma Shri — the first trans woman to be bestowed with it . In December this year, she will receive the Nritya Kalanidhi award for the year 2021 at the Music Academy, Chennai. In 2011, she was given the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar. She is also the recipient of Krishna Gana Sabha’s Nritya Choodamani and the Kalaimamani award.

To sensitise young minds about the transgender community, the Class 11 curriculum of the State Board has a chapter on her. The dancer is credited with coining the term, ‘Thirunangai’ (divine woman), which she added as a prefix to her name. “The way we are addressed in different languages — hijra and aravani — is extremely regressive and derogatory. So I preferred to be referred to as Thirunangai. When former Chief Minister, the late M. Karunanidhi came to know about it, he ordered that the ‘others’ category under gender section in official documents should be replaced with this term. It was a great move,” she says.

Narthaki has travelled to over 24 countries for performances and to conduct lec-dems. “Though I have had no formal education, I try to make up for it by reading extensively. I have a good collection of books on Tamil literature. Earlier, I would be embarrassed about not being able to converse in English but that in a way has pushed me to engage deeply with Tamil. Next week, I will be going to Nagapattinam to speak on the topic ‘Salangai pesum Sanga Tamil’ at a book fair,” she says excitedly.

While Narthaki says dance healed her scars, made her comfortable in her skin and gave her the strength to face the world, she is also aware of the prejudices that still exist in the cultural field. From the outside, it seems receptive to the marginalised but doesn’t always reflect that progress and inclusivity in its approach and attitude. “Often, my artistic achievements are viewed through the gender lens. At cultural events, organisers and artistes sometimes introduce me as just a transgender Bharatanatyam artiste, which definitely is not my only claim to fame. It is hurtful.”

Narthaki waited for almost a year to gain entry into Kittappa Pillai’s gurukulam in Thanjavur. “I had to prove to him that I was not there to just seek refuge from the big, bad world. I worked hard to gain expertise in the form and technique. Every moment of the 15 years spent training under him has been worth it, giving me an identity and showing me the way forward. Being recognised by the Music Academy is the high point of my career. It feels so good to be part of an embracing environment. I remember when I walked up to receive the Padma Shri from President Ram Nath Kovind, I silently thanked everyone who helped me understand my worth,” says Narthaki.

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