On the pinnacle of success
Hand movements mudras and facial expressions showing the different manifestations of Shiva as Vishwanatha Lord of the universe, Dakshinamoorthy the benevolent guru who dispels ignorance and Parama Shiva the ultimate form come alive in their grandeur, serenity and state of supreme consciousness as befits the form,
Hand movements (mudras) and facial expressions showing the different manifestations of Shiva as Vishwanatha (Lord of the universe), Dakshinamoorthy (the benevolent guru who dispels ignorance) and ‘Parama Shiva’ (the ultimate form) come alive in their grandeur, serenity and state of supreme consciousness as befits the form, as the dancer seated in the hotel room where we meet up for an interview provides ethereal glimpses of the classical tradition of the Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam.
There is no makeup, no stage, no orchestra but the magic of the form is so powerful that the spell of Shiva was all that remained as I watched in amazement. Dr Narthaki Nataraj, the Bharatanatyam exponent specialising in the ‘Nayaki Bhava’ tradition of the Thanjavur School imbibed from her famous guru KP Kittappa Pillai and renowned for presenting its legacy in its purest form has scripted history by becoming the first transgender woman to receive the Padma Shri this year.
Her many firsts include an honorary doctorate from Periyar University, the first top graded artiste of Doordarshan, the Kalaimamani award of the state government and the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi award. Her spectacular achievements also include a chapter on her life story in textbooks of Intermediate first year for students in Chennai. Her amazing journey from a small village in Madurai, overcoming bias, scorn and ridicule to the pinnacle of success is truly the stuff that legends are made of.
From obscurity to fame
Coming to terms with her identity as a transwoman and the social stigma it entailed, facing sniggering conservatives, mocking Sabha secretaries and an indifferent establishment, Narthaki’s rise is a story of grit determination and commitment to the art. “As a thirunangai (transgender) I have faced scorn and ridicule all my life. People born like us usually take the easy way out and get into the oldest profession in the world. I did not let shame, rejection or non-acceptance by the majority break my spirit.
As a child, I shed many tears and even questioned God why I was made like this when my large family of brothers and sisters were normal. I was angry with God. From this sorrow emerged the realisation that I was indeed different and created for a special reason. My heart bears the agony of the many scars from the hurtful words that were pelted at me like stones. All those who hurt me are standing where they were, but my hard work has taken me many steps ahead,’’ Narthaki recalls.
Born into an upper middle-class business family in Madurai, she ran away from home at the age of 12 as neither could her family accept her as she was nor could she live with the restrictions placed on her. “People accept the Ardhanareeshwara form of Shiva. They worship Ayyappa as a powerful god. They are alright with the legend of Arjuna as Bruhannala or the Mohini avataram of Vishnu. However, when they see a living example of this, why are they are unable to accept it,” she questions.
Shakti Bhaskar, her similarly placed friend from school who also hailed from a business family joined her and they left the village together as transgenders who wanted to make a mark in classical dancing. “Shakti also learnt from my guru but gave up her own dancing to concentrate on my career. She is my strength and selfless companion. Without her, there is no Narthaki,” she states quite emphatically.
The guru who moulded her
Her love for dancing was sparked by the films that she saw in the ‘tent theatres’ in her village says Narthaki, who imitated the dances performed by Vyjayanthimala, Padmini and Kamala on the deserted streets of Madurai after returning from late night shows to her ‘one person’ audience that was Shakti.
Performing at temples, street festivals and school competitions she knew that the stage was where she wanted to be. After several existential struggles, initial learning and arangetram with her first guru Namanur Jayaraman, who passed away, a year later, Narthaki reached Thanjavur in search of Vyjayanthimala’s guru, the legendary KP Kittappa Pillai.
“We were so naïve and ignorant. When a person seated at the entrance dressed in an ordinary veshti (dhoti) and shirt met us, we told him that we were famous dancers (laughs). He then asked us why we had come here if we were already famous.
We told him we were there because people felt that we needed a guru. Imagine our surprise when we realised that this person was the legendary guru himself,” she says. She was to learn from her guru in the gurukulam tradition from 1985 till his demise in 1999, imbibing his rare compositions and those of the Thanjavur quartet apart from popular compositions.
Although awards and recognition that has come her way are cherished, Narthaki feels that the most memorable experience in her life was the years of learning under her guru. It was a divine experience as he was a ‘Siddha Purusha’ or elevated soul who helped her emerge as a dancer with a special focus on the sahityam (literature) of any dance composition according to her. It was her guru who gave her the name ‘Narthaki’. A great lover of Tamil literature, she delves deep into the meaning and the emotion behind the words in order to get the right interpretation.
Assisting him in his research at the Thanjavur University spurred her own research, reading and collection of rare manuscripts. “Today any happiness pales in comparison with the happiness I received in my guru’s presence. My years with my guru are like my time with God himself,” she declares. Continuing her guru’s tradition by teaching several students in the Velliyambalam School of dance that she established in Chennai, Narthaki feels that learning is eternal and that she would like to keep the thirst for learning alive.
Presenting rare interpretations of old themes from the works of Subramania Bharathi and Bharathidasan, little-known pieces on heroine oriented themes from Thevaram, Thiruvachakam, Silappadikaram, Thirupugazh, Divya Prabandham and other religious epics Narthaki has performed in major venues across the world receiving accolades and appreciation.
What the future holds
Exposed to different cultures of the world through her dance performances Narthaki feels blessed that she is born in India whose art and culture she is in awe of. She believes in keeping alive the purity of the Thanjavur art form without corrupting it in the name of innovation. She wants to continue her exploration of different facets of nayaki bhava showcasing ‘Mathura Bhakti’ (sweet devotion) or the union with the divine as the ultimate liberation. Meanwhile, ‘Tanmayatva’ the state where the dancer and the dance become one, is what she experiences on stage and conveys to audiences.