CHENNAI: Making history is not new to Narthaki Nataraj, and, by getting appointed to State Development Policy Council (SDPC) as a part-time member, she did so once again; she is the first transperson to reach this position.
Recipient of many awards, including Padmashri, Kalaimamani, and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the 56-year-old artiste says she had to undertake an arduous journey to ‘blossom like a Thazhampoo,’ her metaphor for her growth.
Excerpts from her interview.
Can you explain the process of your appointment to the council?
It was unexpected. I got to know about the decision through a call from the Chief Minister’s Office. The news made me nervous due to the responsibility the role entails. It, however, also made me realise the respect they (the government) have for me.
I immediately called the person I revere the most: Shaktima (friend Shakti Bhaskar). As always, she calmed me down. She was neither excited nor worried; she asked me to think whether I can take such a responsibility.
I told her that the opportunity would help me work for the people. Also, I am confined to home for the past one year, without an opportunity to perform, and that distressed me a lot. Now, by god’s grace, I got this opportunity.
There is a general perception that planning bodies function for namesake. How according to you must planning bodies perform?
I had known about their functions just as much as anybody else. I have heard that the body, in the last 20 years, had not functioned effectively.
This time, however, my colleagues, the newly appointed members, are highly qualified in their respective fields, such as agriculture, health, education, economy, and Siddha medicine. I have read their articles. When I sit among them, I am confident that this team will help Tamil Nadu reach higher levels of development.
What are you planning to bring to the table with your experience?
Having grown up in Madurai, I have a sound understanding of rural lifestyle, environment, folk art, local dialects, culture, and traditions followed in all the 56 villages. This helped me become a refined artiste and understand society as a person in the 1980s and 90s. Then, by moving to Chennai and travelling to other global cities, I understood the urban audience and their lifestyles. Through the nuanced understanding of various needs in society, I think I can contribute something.
How do you plan to work? Do you have any strategy?
I have been given the Health and Social Welfare division. But we (office bearers) thought that working in silos because of the divisions may create a vacuum in planning.
So, we decided to work together. For instance, thoughts would be invested into finding the correlation among transgender community and agriculture, economic policies and vulnerable communities or health, and introducing anthropology to children at a younger age.
We have planned to think in multiple dimensions and bring out constructive policies, which is possible only through collaboration.
Which one do you think should be considered while discussing your appointment? Your gender or your achievements?
I have been waiting to answer such a question. I strongly believe I got this opportunity because of my credentials as an artiste. Fortunately, I also happened to be a transperson. It is double sweetness and joy.
Then, that gives rise to another question. Is there no artiste better qualified than I? Yes, there are many of them. Apart from merit, I am sure, I was selected also because I can empathise with the marginalised people, not only transpersons but also those marginalised due to caste and religion.
The same thing happened when I was awarded Padmashri, which I got because of my contribution to Bharatanatyam, not because of my gender. Besides, I never considered myself a social worker. Many of them are working for our rights.
Also, I am opposed to using the term ‘third gender’. None is third in line. Women are not second to men, or vice versa. We are all humans. Earlier, there was much ridicule that one had to face for identifying oneself as transperson. None can forget that.
But today, global ideas have already permeated into the country, shattering useless social structures and fake cultures and helping people understand their feelings and identify themselves as LGBTQ+. This is the feeling that is going to decide the character of a person. And it should happen without any hurdles.
There are many transpersons who lack basic social awareness. Do you have any strategy to address this?
There are two types of transpersons: ones who have social awareness and the ones who don’t. I will be working for the two categories and other marginalised sections.
I, however, have told people from my community to approach me only with requests that will benefit the community as a whole and not just an individual. Such requests would be placed before the council for review. Ultimately, I would like to integrate the transgender community into society better.
Do you have plans to act as a bridge between NGOs working for transgenders rights and the government?
From a general outlook, I know many NGOs that are doing commendable work and those that are functioning just in letter pads. When such NGOs approach us, their background, state of affairs, and goals would be reviewed and only then the requests would be considered.
Recently, a member from the judiciary took up a counselling session to understand the emotions of LGBTQ+ people. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone is so sensible?
I convey my regards to the much-respected Justice N Anand Venkatesh for doing it. The entire community would be thankful to him because he did something that even our family would refuse to do: To understand us.
Do you think dissent is important for social welfare?
Dissent and revolution have been part of my journey. Revolution takes birth wherever rights and feelings are denied. For instance, you keep chasing a cat. It will run for its life only till there is no way out. Then there will be retribution. Similar are the voices of rights activists and they are important.