When Dr. Narthaki Nataraj talks about her lost love, loneliness and the one lasting friendship that has carried her through life, it’s in lyrical Tamil verse. Her words fall like honey drops, with the intensity of her emotions colouring her crystalline enunciations. Her narrative has a dream-like quality sprinkled with vivid artistic imagery, making one feel like she’s lived a life right out of the movies.
Narthaki is a trailblazer. Earlier this year, she was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in the country for her work in Bharatanatiyam. In 2011, she was honoured with the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi award from the President of India. Four years prior to that, the Tamil Nadu state government honoured her with the Kalaimamani award.
But before all of this, Narthaki names her first ‘gifts’ from society to be rejection, humiliation, disappointment and hurt. She was chastised for being who she was — a woman trapped in a man’s body. Her gender identity, however, had little to do with a pulsating sense of purpose she pursued to prove that she was stronger than the hardships the world heaped against her. It is, in fact, what takes this superstar dancer around the world today. “The purest pearls come from the depths of the ocean. A beautiful lotus blossoms from the depths of mud and dirt. Likewise, my pain, my loneliness, the loss of my love, has made me all that I am today,” says Narthaki.
Her story starts in Anuppanadi, a small village near Madurai, where she grew up in a traditional and wealthy family, surrounded by her parents, ten siblings, relatives and grandparents. An artistic child who ached to express herself, she realised she was different when she was 10-years-old. “I loved everyone and longed for their love. For a young heart that floated in dreams and poetry, isn’t it normal to yearn more for affection than an average child?” asks Narthaki.
Even as she revelled in the femininity that was throbbing, thriving and blossoming within her male anatomy, Narthaki was torn by the conflict that raged between her body and mind. The expression of this discord within her disturbed the world outside. It tried to dictate who she could be, and decide what she could do — dance wasn’t an option, as it was an art form reserved for women. But… she was a woman. She knew that, even though the world said otherwise.
Finding friendship, forging bonds
As a child growing up in the 70s and 80s, she faced severe backlash with society heaping hurt and hurling insults at her. “I tried to tell people that dance was within me, that I would succeed as a dancer. But no one would lend their ears or open their hearts to listen to what I had to say. At that time, even though I had everyone, I was orphaned,” says Narthaki.
Her one solace, support and anchor was Shakti Bhaskar, who shared her internal conflict and also her love for dance. “There was only one ground where we could play, which was attached to the temple of the village deity. No one would play with us, so we would play with each other,” says Narthaki. When away from society’s judging eyes, Narthaki would replicate the postures of the idols on display in the temple. Shakti would admire her — she was Narthaki’s first and biggest fan. “In those moments, I felt like a river flowing in its natural path, like a tree swaying with the breeze, like a bee buzzing in the wind… Even while the world mistreated us, Shakti and I created an artistic cocoon where we could be our natural selves. Bharatanatiyam proved to be a vessel to express my femininity.”
The duo explored their love for dance together, watching the biggest stars of the day — Padmini, Vyjayanthimala, Saroja Devi, Kumari Kamala — explore the form on the silver screen. “We would pretend to fall asleep in the thinnai (a raised veranda in front of the house) and at 10.30, once everyone was asleep, we would sprint to watch the second show. We would watch every dance film showcased in the touring talkies, while sitting on mud floors, under thatched roofs. It would be 2am by the time the film ended and as we walked back home, Narthaki would emulate the dance stances and sequences we had seen on screen. She was always thinking about dance,” says Shakti.
Meeting her mentor
When Narthaki was forced to leave her home, Shakti left with her — they were friends who had forged an enduring bond, and were destined to live and love dance together. “We had never known poverty, and suddenly we were out on the streets. It was very tough. When faced with hunger and hardships, it is easy to traverse the wrong path, but we had courage and the conviction to make something of ourselves,” says Narthaki. They started performing in temples and drama troupes, and won the appreciation of their audiences. When they were asked who mentored them, they would blink. “We didn’t even know we needed a ‘guru’ to learn dance,” chuckles Narthaki.
Shakti narrates how they found the legendary KP Kittappa Pillai, a descendent of the Thanjavur Quartet brothers, who as palace musicians under the Maratha rulers in Thanjavur were responsible for codifying Bharatanatiyam 200-years-ago. “Ananda Vikatan carried a cover story on Vyjayanthimala’s Bharatanatiyam guru in 1984 and we were ecstatic to know that he lived in Thanjavur, which was only four hours away by bus. He was an unassuming man and we went to see him, as adolescents drenched in make-up, with our lips coloured bright red — not with lipstick, but with an ink pen,” laughs Shakti.
“We didn’t know how big he was when we went knocking on his door. But today, it is my greatest honour to say that I’m his student,” says Narthaki. Impressed by her commitment and perseverance, and recognising her obvious artistry, Kittappa accepted this Bharatanatiyam prodigy as his student. She was obviously exceptional, and he generously made her even more so, by making her one of the few custodians of rare dance pieces performed in the Thanjavur baani (tradition). “I think of him as a ‘siddha purushan’ (enlightened ascetic) — at a time when we had no social acceptance or financial support, he believed in us,” says Narthaki.
This was also the time when Narthaki came to terms with her identity. With Shakti’s help, she began questioning society’s backlash. “What had we done wrong? We hadn’t lied, we hadn’t stolen from anyone; we were merely expressing who we truly are. What was society’s problem? People were wasting our time and hurting us. But we didn’t have time to waste; we had to dance. We had to shine in the limelight.”
Making her own path
Narthaki soldiered on and lit the path she traversed with possibility for anyone who might want to follow her footsteps. Even though she did not study beyond class 12, she had the privilege to serve as a research assistant to Kittappa, when he worked at the Thanjavur Tamil University. She leveraged this opportunity to continue studying by winning consecutive government scholarships, and in 2016, received an honorary doctorate from the Periyar Maniammai University for her scholarly work in Bharatanatiyam and Tamil literature.
She used her accomplishments as a stepping stone to demand for the dignity that was rightfully hers. In 2002, she urged the union home ministry to change identity for transwomen from ‘U’ (eunuch) to ‘F’ (female) in the gender column of passports. Shakti, she proudly states, received this revamped passport ahead of her. Narthaki also pushed to replace references to transwomen in Tamil Nadu’s official documents — from ‘aravani’ which is considered derogatory to ‘thirunangai’ which literally translates to ‘respected-woman’ in 2008, under former chief minister Karunanidhi’s regime.
Through their life and work, Narthaki and Shakti have indeed created far-reaching ripples. Their outstanding achievements have been included as biographies in Tamil State Board textbooks, which promises the possibility that the children who study them would be kinder and more supportive of those different from themselves.
The dance of her soul
In the middle of this extraordinary life, Narthaki found herself taken over by an old and familiar feeling. Love has a way of engulfing the best of us, but it is the best of us who make the most of love. When Narthaki found hers, she gave in to it with the same intensity which sets her apart as an artiste. “Apart from the attraction, we think of our lover as someone who would give us all the love that was ever denied to us, who would save us from all our troubles. We see him as a man who accepts and embraces our womanhood. We believe we are protected in his love. But society has not designed him for this. Love is like a mirage for the transgender community — we believe we are going to catch bubbles in an oasis when we are traversing a desert,” says Narthaki.
She created beauty from the love that she lost, for all the emotions it evoked from the depths of her heart, she channeled into her art. “I overcame this loss by delving deep within dance and seizing every artistic opportunity that came my way. When I lost myself within dance, I didn’t have to search for myself anymore,” says Narthaki.
Despite all that she has overcome and achieved, Narthaki doesn’t ask for appreciation for her grit in the face of adversary, but rather acceptance so that the way forward is not so difficult for those from the third gender. “Change happens at an individual level. You needn’t celebrate me for making different choices, because that isn’t going to bring back the childhood I lost, the love that left me or my parents’ affection that I had to forego. We have lived well, and we will continue to succeed and remain students all our lives. But for society to flourish and for our future to be bright and pleasant, we need to practice and teach good values to children. In such an environment, another child like Narthaki will thrive.”
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