Meet Narthaki Nataraj, India's First Transgender Bharatnatyam Dancer To Be Awarded Padma Shri
As India has taken a step further to recognize the LGBTQ community, Narthaki Nataraj, a Bharatnatyam dancer, has become the first Indian transgender to win the honourable Padma Shri Award. The 54-year-old Bharatanatyam dancer is a trans activist from Madurai and specializes in Tanjavore tradition of Nayaki Bhava style.
Like other transgenders of her community, Narthaki’s life was a thorny path too. She was born a male in July 1964, in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. She decided to pursue Bharatanatyam, a dance form that was popular among women, and very few men would learn the art.
Battling with poverty and societal pressure, she took financial assistance from her childhood friend Shakti. At an early age, she discovered the feminine side of her personality. Her identity was looked down upon by society and she was subjected to social injustice and discrimination. Due to this reason, Narthaki decided to flee away from her home when she was just 12 years old. She took up menial jobs to sustain her life.
Since her childhood, Narthaki was in a constant search of a dance guru. Finally, she met the legendary Thanjavar Kittappa Pillai, a descendant of the 17th century Thanjavur Quartet. She spent 15 years with her guru, learning the perquisites of Bharatanatyam along with her friend Shakti. She has also assisted her guru Kittappa Pillai at Tanjore Tamil University in Tamil Nadu.
Taking her passion forward, Narthaki Nataraj founded a dance school in Tamil Nadu where she teaches Bharatanatyam. She has gained a reputation for her contribution to the research field and dance performances around the world. Through her dance performances, she has become an icon of admiration across the globe and a representative of the transgender community.
Recalling her journey with her Guru, Narthika says, “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.”
Talking about her performance, she shared that she goes into a trance state while dancing and feels elevated forgets about the things around her. At the same time, she breaks the gender stereotype and leaves her audience enthralled by her expressions and movements.
The graceful Bharatanatyam dancer holds many feathers in her hat through her achievements. Narthaki has performed on important events across the globe. She became the first transgender to be a recipient of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academy Award by then President Pranab Mukherjee and a Senior Fellowship from Department of Culture, Government of India.
She has been awarded the Kalaimamani award, the highest honour of the Tamil Nadu government and has also been the recipient of the Nritya Choodamani of the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in 2009. Her life story has also been featured in the school textbooks of Tamil Nadu.
She teaches dance to her Indian and foreigner students at her own dance school Velliamballam School of Dance that has branches in the United States of America, United Kingdom, and Norway. Recently, it was announced she would be awarded one of the country’s highest civilian awards, Padma Shri for her contribution in her field.
The Padma Awards are India’s highest civilian awards that are announced before Republic Day and was awarded to those who have made a significant contribution in the field of art, engineering, trade, social welfare, medicine, literature, sports, civil science, and other related areas.
The awards are bestowed by the President of India at Rashtrapati Bhavan in the month of March-April every year.