CHENNAI: Exclusion and derision were what occupied most of Narthaki Natraj’s childhood and early adulthood. On Saturday, the 54-year-old transwoman became the first trans person to be awarded a Padma Shri.
Born in the temple town of Madurai, Narthaki specialises in the Thanjavur-based Nayaki Bhava tradition. “I became aware of my feminine side at the age of 10 and the only way I could express it then was through dance,” she said. Designated male at birth, Narthaki, whose gender identity is female, struggled to enter the world of dance. She said few men pursued Bharatanatyam at the time as its language, content and form were designed for women. As her gender identity was not recognised and accepted, she faced societal pressures and stigma that forced her to run away from home at the age of 12.
Narthaki did menial jobs to pay for food and shelter, but was always drawn to dance and was in constant search for a guru. She finally found one in 1984 — the legendary Thanjavur Kittappa Pillai. Kittappa’s students include Yamini Krishnamurti, Vyjayanthimala Bali and Sudharani Raghupathy.
“I trained under him for 15 years. I was also a demonstration artist for the dance pieces he described in his research at the Thanjavur Tamil University. The number of performances of mine certainly increased, but acceptance initially did not,” she recollected.
It was years before audiences recognised her splendid performances. In 2011, she was honoured with the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi award from the President of India, a first for any trans person. “At that moment in Delhi, I realised how gifted every human being is. No matter whether we are born as male, female or trans, passion and self-confidence are all it takes.”
Along with her friend Shakti Bhaskar, Narthaki Nataraj set up a dance school, Velliyambalam Nadana Kalaikoodam, in Chennai and Madurai. Here, she trains many students from India and abroad in the traditional repertoire of Thanjavur Quartets.