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

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


As Pride month attracts to a shut, Narthaki Nataraj speaks about how dance healed her scars, which is why she believes that artwork can empower the transgender group

As Pride month attracts to a shut, Narthaki Nataraj speaks about how dance healed her scars, which is why she believes that artwork can empower the transgender group

It was the 12 months 2011. Dressed in a vivid orange kurti and black leggings, Narthaki Nataraj walked into a Chennai cafe for an interview, alongside along with her  thozi (buddy) Shakti. She hesitantly ordered a chilly espresso, uncertain if she would love it. During the course of the dialog, one might sense her vulnerability and nervousness as she spoke in regards to the trauma of being genderqueer, and dealing with hate, rejection and mock.

Cut to June 20, 2022. As I enter Ezhilagam at Chepauk in Chennai, Narthaki Nataraj’s secretary ushers me into her workplace on the fifth ground. Clad in a crisp crimson cotton sari, there’s an air of confidence about her as she discusses the small print of a assembly along with her workers. She requests her secretary to get some tea. As one of many eight members of the State Development Policy Council, she now helps body social and cultural insurance policies. It is the primary time an artiste has been appointed on the advisory board.

From being pressured to go away residence on the age of 12 to fulfilling her dream of coaching in Bharatanatyam below guru Kittappa Pillai (who gave her the title ‘Narthaki Nataraj’) and rising to change into a outstanding consultant of the Thanjavur bani to holding an influential place within the authorities, Narthaki Nataraj’s journey appears 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 priceless house 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 younger members of her group, serving to them acquire dignity and acceptance by discovering a objective 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 on the Music Academy in Chennai
| Photo Credit: RAVINDRAN R

In 2019, Narthaki was awarded the Padma Shri — the primary trans girl to be bestowed with it In December this 12 months, she is going to obtain the Nritya Kalanidhi award for the 12 months 2021 on the Music Academy, Chennai. In 2011, she was given the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar. She can also be the recipient of Krishna Gana Sabha’s Nritya Choodamani and the Kalaimamani award.

To sensitise younger minds in regards to the transgender group, the Class 11 curriculum of the State Board has a chapter on her. The dancer is credited with coining the time period, ‘Thirunangai’ (divine girl), which she added as a prefix to her title. “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 nations 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 comfy in her pores and skin and gave her the power to face the world, she can also be conscious of the prejudices that also exist within the cultural area. From the surface, it appears receptive to the marginalised however doesn’t all the time mirror that progress and inclusivity in its strategy and perspective. “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 nearly a 12 months to realize 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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