Thanjavur, a name which sounds like the anklets jingling is a city in Tamil Nadu. It is an important center of South Indian religion, art and culture. It is famous for its temples. It is famous for its Tanjore style painting. It is also famous for Bharatanatyam, especially Nayaki Bhava tradition which happens to be that tradition which is a lesser known form of Bharatanatyam. Narthaki Nataraj not only helped in reviving Nayaki Bhava tradition but also did something more than that which brought a wave of change.
Nataraj was born on 6th of July 1964 as a boy who always questioned the nature of his own being due to which he never spent any time outside his house. Till the age of 11 Nataraj lived in shadows and dreamed of light. In night Nataraj along with his friend Shakti, roamed the temple town of Madurai in search of music coming from distance talkies. In that music, they both felt their feminine side by dancing to the tunes of famous Tamil songs. In those magical trances they where she rather than he. Little did they knew that life is not that much cheerful.
After knowing that Nataraj is a transgender, he was thrown out of home. Shakti his best friend followed him and they searched for a guru who would appreciate their passion for dance. Remembering those days Narthaki Nataraj in an interview with TheHindu said, “I did odd jobs, struggled for even a single meal a day and somehow managed to finish schooling. All through, I kept alive my love for dance.”
They travelled to the great city of Thanjavur, where she came to know about Shri K P Kittappa Pillai. Shri K P Kittappa Pillai is the descendent of famous Tanjore Quartet who are revered as the father of Bharatanatyam. With their extreme hardship they were accepted by Shri K P Kittappa Pillai as his disciple. They impressed him to such an extent that he allowed them to live with him. He trained them for 14 years. Later Narthaki Nataraj also worked with him as an assistant in Tanjore Tamil University.
While speaking to TheHindu, Narthaki Nataraj said, “We didn’t realize that the doors we knocked at were of such great honour. Only later, we learnt that Kittappa Pillai was the guru for stalwarts like Hema Malini and Yamini Krishnamurthy apart from Vyjayanti Mala, whom I admired on the screens of touring talkies in Madurai. Shakti and I imitated her dance steps and she was our on-screen guru.” They found not only a guru in Shri K P Kittappa Pillai but also saw a mother and father in them. It was he who without any prejudice accepted them as he had accepted all his disciples and trained them to be great. Their hard work was the appreciation they could give to their master.
Now after so many years, 54 year old Narthaki Nataraj is a well-known name in Nayaki Bhava tradition. She is known all over the world for her trance like dance. She was invited to France, Denmark, Switzerland, US, Canada, Japan and England and many more. Through her Nayaki Bhava styles she loves telling ancient stories and poems of Tamil literature. Recently in Japan she performed on Appar Thiruthandagam from Thevaram, that talks of the liberation of soul. Her 45 minute dance was appreciated for gracefully representing a 6 line poem. She had also performed folk lore’s of Punjab during a show in Amritsar, Telugu kirtans in Andhra Pradesh and Oriya poems in Bhubaneswar. Now she is researching for transgender history in Tamil literature and is planning to create a dance with a magnitude of magnum opus around it.
On facing the stigma of being a transgender, Narthaki Nataraj said, “Even though society kept chasing me for my gender choices, I have never shielded away from wearing it on the sleeve. In the Madurai of the 80s and 90s, Shakti and I were open about our identities and came out saying that we were indeed transgender women.” For her work in the field of Bharatanatyam she was conferred with Padma Shri in 2019. She is proud to say that she never used her transgender identity as to gain sympathy but wore it like a pride. She says, “Even the Padma Shri is being accorded for my expertise as a dancer and not because I am a transgender woman.” But Narthaki Nata
raj had not forgotten her roots and the struggle which she had faced for being a transgender. She runs Velliambalam Trust that trains dancers. About 85 percent of the proceedings from the Trust is kept aside for the welfare of transgender community, hoping to be a light for those who are still hiding in shadows of social stigma.
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