54-year-old Dr Narthaki Nataraj became the first transperson to be awarded Padma Shri on January 26.
Born in Madurai, Nataraj faced exclusion and stigma during her childhood that forced her to run away at the age of 12. After doing menial jobs to support herself, she was drawn to Bharatanatyam and started learning the artform in 1984 under the tutelage of Thanjavur Kittappa Pillai, whose students include Yamini Krishnamurti, Vyjayanthimala Bali and Sudharani Raghupathy.
Natraj told TNIE,
“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.”
She specialised in Thanjavur-based Nayaki Bhava tradition but despite performing for years, it took time for her audiences to recognise her performance. In 2011, she was honoured by former President Pranab Mukherjee with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, becoming the first transwoman to be recognised with the honour.
She now teaches Thanjavur Quartets, the traditional repertoire of Bharatanatyam that originates from the princely state of Tanjore, in her dance schools in Chennai and Madurai.