Narthaki Nataraj has become the first transgender to receive the prestigious Padma Shri award. She is a professional Bharatnatyam dancer specialising in Thanjavur-based Nayaki Bhava tradition of the dance.
The 54-year-old transwoman from Madurai battled exclusion, inferiority, ridicule and mockery throughout her childhood and adolescent years.
Narthaki faced many obstacles in her life including finding a mentor for her Bharatanatyam training. She ran away from home at the age of 12 and did many servile jobs to get through the day and pay for sustenance. Simultaneously she was in search of a dance guru who could guide her to become a professional dancer.
Career as a dancer
Narthaki at last came across Thanjavur Kittappa Pillai in 1984, who took her under his wings and trained her for 15 years.
"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," Narthaki told The New Indian Express.
However, it took a lot of hard work and perseverance by Narthaki to get the recognition she deserved. Her first major breakthrough was in 2011 when she received Sangeet Natak Akademi award from the President of India
She said: "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."
Difficulties in her childhood
Narthaki was born as a male. She discovered her feminine side at the age of ten. "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 told TNIE.
She went on to say that it was very rare for men to enter the field of dancing, let alone a transperson. Due to this, her life became exceedingly difficult and she ran away from home when she was 12.
Narthaki has opened a Bharatanatyam dance centre in Chennai which she runs along with her friend Shakti Bhaskar. The school, Velliyambalam Nadana Kalaikoodam, also has a branch in Madurai. She trains both Indian and international students in the Thanjavur Quartets style in Bharatnatyam.