Dr. Narthaki Nataraj is one of the most accomplished Bharatnatyam dancers of today and a torchbearer engaged in preserving the dance compositions of the legendary Tanjore Quartet. By showcasing her flawless skill on an international platform, she is also giving the trans community much needed recognition. Dr. Narthaki will be honoured with the Padma Shri Award this year for her immense contributions to the field of art. I caught up with her for a long and interesting conversation, where she talks about how she continues to make this world a better place for the LGBTQ community through art and culture. She tells me how her journey began, and the challenges and prejudices she had to face in order to find acceptance as an artiste. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Bijasmita (B): How difficult was it to come out as transgender in a conservative society like ours?
Dr. Narthaki Nataraj (NN): India is, culturally, a rich and diverse nation. In Tamil Nadu, we have different traditions pertaining to different religions. In my native town of Madurai, at that time, people were more conservative and it, definitely, was not easy to come out as transgender in society. During my childhood days, I yearned for acceptance and to mingle with mainstream society, but the transgender community was largely ignored and turned a deaf ear to. Though we wanted to live with our family and friends as integral parts of society, we were not permitted to. The irony is that the same people who worship Ardhanarishvara as a transgender deity do not find it in their hearts to accept the living forms of the same community. “Why do you neglect us?”, “Why do you avoid us?”, “Why do you insult us?” These are some of the questions the trans community can never expect to be answered.
B: What were the difficulties and challenges you faced during your childhood and how did your family react to you embracing your new identity?
NN: When my family and neighbours came to know, I couldn’t comprehend why everybody suddenly wanted to have nothing to do with me. This question has been posed many times before, but each time, I find myself at a loss for words to describe the pain and anguish I went through, at that time. I felt sad, angry and frustrated by the behavior of my family and at their inability to understand my feelings. I hated my parents and my brother for not standing up for me, back then. Because of the discrimination, my best friend Shakti and I left home, determined to carve out a niche for ourselves in this society.
The attitude of the society towards the trans community made me a little sympathetic to my family.They were ostracised because they gave birth to a child who felt she was a woman born in the wrong body. I was struggling to establish my own identity and in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was difficult to fight for our dignity in a hostile world. My brother’s friends would tease me and my family was unable to do anything in the face of such strong hatred. It almost made me feel sorry for my family. But now, I no longer feel anger or hatred towards anyone.
B: How did you begin your journey as a dancer?
NN: Strictly speaking,that was not my decision (laughs). God chose that path for me. He sent Shakti to guide me in this world. They say that a person is known by the company they keep and, in that regard, I consider myself blessed. We are very different from each other. She is disciplined and punctual while I am a free bird, spontaneous, and erratic. I am her world and she lives and breathes only for me. I love silk sarees, diamonds, jewels, and make-up, but she has no such worldly desires. We want to mingle with this society and, to make my mark, I chose art. Though we are unlike the binary majority, we still have a lot to give to the world of art. Dogs bark, yet the caravan goes on.Hence, criticisms never mattered much to us.This is the life of a transgender person. Then, I decided to excel in art and make society acknowledge me. I forget myself when I dance. I feel like I am flying, out in the open skies, free from judgement. I am grateful to God for everything I have and there is nothing else that I could wish for.
NN: Nayaki Bhava is the only unique enchanting Bhakti Bhava, unique to Indian culture. “Nayaki Bhava” talks of “Madhuryabhakti Bhava”. “Madhurya” means God is the Male of this universe. Here, men, women, and every other living creatures are Female. We are proud because God loves us. “Madhurya” denotes “motherhood”, and the “Nayaki” suggests “lover”. The search of the Soul – Jeevatma – for the Supreme – Paramatma – is the underlying current that runs through the entire process of self realization in Indian art and culture. We all are ‘Jeevatma’ (female forms) and the God only is ‘Paramatma’ and the thread connecting these two is ‘bhakti’, ‘art’ or ‘rituals’. I chose dance, God chose me. I chose femininity, God chose transgender.
If you ask me who I am, I don’t know. I don’t know whether I am a male or female. I am for God. And if you continue to ask me who I am, I will answer ‘I am a God’. Everything lies here only. If you do bad to others, then it’s in the form of ‘Rakhshasa’, and if you can purify your soul, you become a God. That’s all. That’s the “Madhuryabhava”. I chose this specialisation and I like to learn and read more and more about it just to escape from everyone and stay away from useless questions.
B: You became the first Indian transgender woman to be awarded the Padma Shri, and also, you are the first transgender person in India whose story has been featured in a school text-book (11th standard,Tamil Nadu state syllabus). How do these achievements feel?
NN: During the ‘80s and ‘90s, no one was ready to come out and express themselves as transgender. The fear of social isolation always prevailed. Nowadays, the scenario has changed a little. We are from Madurai and Madurai is the land of the fictional heroine Kannaki. Madurai is slowly becoming a place where people can express themselves freely. But even now, when we introduce ourselves as being transgender, some people continue to hurt us with their reply and behavior towards us. We want to know why they are so reluctant to accept us. When will society stop gossiping about our whole community? Only, time can tell.
B: What are your future plans for your dance school, the Velliyambalam School of Dance?
NN: Four years ago, we established a Trust. I want to pass on the experiences I have gained in my life to those willing to pursue dance. Our life is a relay race, my Guru passed on the compositions of the Tanjore Quartets to me and I want to pass it on to those worthy of it.
B: You have travelled all over the world, performing at different events in the UK, US, and some European countries. What are the differences you found in those countries and ours when it comes to accepting transgender people?
NN: In foreign countries, your anatomy is never equated with what you have to offer. I would often wonder if life would be any different there, and when I visited those countries, I was touched by the way people treated me and recognized my art. I was very hesitant and wondered if people knew I was transgender, and if they did, I wondered if their attitude towards me would change. But nothing of that sort happened and nobody seemed to bat an eyelid when I told them about my gender identity.
B: In your 2017 TEDx Talk, you spoke about the discrimination faced by you and Shakti. What are the changes you hope to see in the Indian education system as a transgender person, for the transgender community?
NN: Shakti and I were very good students. She would secure the first rank and I used to get the fifth or sixth rank. But we were always judged for our bodies rather than our academic achievement. But it’s all in the past. Today, I am happy that the children of the same school study from books that have our stories in them. Only education can break the barriers of social insensitivity. In an educational institution, no person should face harassment due to their gender identities.
NN: We are all human beings with families and loved ones we care about. I didn’t decide to be transgender; nobody does. This is an anatomical mistake and we ended up coming into the world in the wrong bodies. As I said, we are ready to worship a transgender deity, but deny basic rights and freedom of expression to living, breathing trans people. Now, after the decriminalization, male dancers who considered themselves gay or more inclined to femininity are coming out, openly, to the society.More importantly, the youth of today accept them for who they are. It is a step towards a great revolution, and people, today, love us and fight for our rights. The male dancers who, until now, hesitated to truly express themselves have found their outlets.
B: You are so immensely inspiring. Whom do you look up to as a role model?
NN: (Laughing) I am a huge fan of Bollywood on-screen heroines like Padmini and Vyjayanthimala. We would watch their films over and over again and would try to imitate their styles of dancing. If we couldn’t get the steps or the expressions right, we would go to the theatre, yet another time, to watch the film again.
B: Do you have a message for the parents of transgender children?
NN: I would like to reiterate that there is nothing you can do but accept it. Gender identity is not something one can choose consciously. My family faced music of a different sort, but today, that is not the case. If you still continue to believe you can change your child, or ostracize them for the way they express themselves, you will lose your child.
B: And what would you like to say to the LGBTQ community on standing up for their rights and their rightful place in society?
You must respect yourself first, love yourself, keep working hard, and then nothing can stop you from achieving what you want. No barriers can keep you from succeeding if you remain true to what you believe in.
Author’s Note: We are grateful to the Cultural Secretary of University of Hyderabad; Mr. Aravind S Kumar, for giving us the chance to conduct this interview and helping us in translating the content.