Narthaki, though not a natural born woman, specializes in depicting bhava laden nayaki roles and a lot of research goes into her productions. Narthaki established her dance school Narthaki Nrutya Kalalaya in Madurai in 1989 and recently in Chennai. More than 100 students including overseas students are being trained in her schools. Artistes who face the same identity crisis as her are treated kindly and welcomed.
I hope I have done justice in my English translation of what she expressed in beautiful Madurai Tamil.
(‘We’ in the interview refers to Narthaki and her childhood friend Shakti who shares the same gender problems).
When did you first realize you were different?
From the time I knew what life was, the only things I experienced were taunts and rebukes. I was about 7 then and did not know how to express myself the way I do now with courage and conviction. I could not understand in what way I was different from the other boys, only that I felt more safe and at home with girls. I knew I would be thrashed if I expressed my thoughts and remained silent.
We have come up the hard way, faced so much scorn and censure and lived in fear. People born like us generally take the easy way out and go into the oldest profession in the world. But we did not let the shame and rejection break our spirits. Our grit and determination to carve a name for ourselves as respected artistes has brought us where we are today. I have spent many a moment shedding tears in my house terrace or by a lonely pond, ruminating on why I was born like this, but the desire to overcome these hurdles and shine was uppermost in my mind.
We did not want to be like something on show. Maybe like some tidbit in Dina Thanthi that says, “He suddenly became a woman” or, “ Sita has become Ramu”. My case is nothing like that. If you could look into my heart, you will see the agony and scars. I am in no way inferior to a woman when I do my nayaki roles. Not every natural born woman is a successful dancer or leads a trouble free life. In no way have I spoilt my life by living life on my terms.
When did your interest in dance start?
As far back as I can remember I was always interested in dance, wanted to dance to an appreciative audience and excel in my art. I used to get opportunities to do 3 to 5 minute dances for functions and small events. I did not know formal dance as such, my imagination helped shape my movements. So, unknown to my family, I used to give performances and wipe all traces of makeup for fear of punishment before coming home, but they always managed to find out.
Since you had no formal training at that young age, who / what was your inspiration?
I used to see films, especially films that had dance in it. Vyjayanthimala in “Parthiban Kanavu’ was so inspiring, Padmini’s dances were classy, Kamala’s style was different. I used to imagine I was Padmini or Vyjayanthi. We would see the late show in Madurai Anapanadi and on the way back home, at 2am on the deserted Thennamara Road, I used to do my interpretations to my one-member audience, Shakti. Dogs belonging to the gypsy settlements by the roadside would chase me sometimes; I’ve even been bitten! How would they know I was dancing!! I could hardly tell my family and tended to my wounds myself.
The aftermath of the film dances used to be with me for a week and it irked my family to see me making eyes in the mirror! I would be spanked and the misery made me resolve many a time to try to be like any other student, study and go for a job. That would last only till the next offer to dance maybe in a temple and I would get back to it with renewed energy! My makeup stuff would be hidden in various secret places, so I would start gathering them in readiness, organize for a wig and so on. I used to get lots of prizes but gave them away as I could not bring them home.
Who was your first teacher?
Seeing my dance, many advised me to get a good teacher and learn dance the proper way. An elderly relative, who visited my house frequently and recognized my talent, could not bear to see me treated harshly and took responsibility to get me a good teacher. Unfortunately, for him dance and drama were same and he took me to a stage actress who used to act in all night plays and sleep through the day! I finally had to plead that I wanted to learn dance and not acting! She was kind enough to single out a teacher Namanur Jeyaraman from the Thanjavur bani to teach me, but we had to travel to Sivaganga to meet him. The meager funds provided by Shakti enabled only me to accompany the actress to Sivaganga. Shakti and I had started dance together but now, for the first time, Shakti’s ambitions took second place and she sacrificed everything for me from then on.
How old were you then?
About 12. I was thrilled to enter the hallowed halls of guru Jeyaraman’s house, and saw the photos of Kamalahasan’s sisters who had learnt from him. But the teacher was extremely ill and bed ridden and my heart sank. He asked me to pray to Goddess Meenakshi that he would recover enough to teach me when he came to Madurai for medical checkups.
Surprisingly, I got a card from him a month later to get a space ready for classes. But where? There was a school nearby which used to open very early for the Trustees’ children to play in and we used the opportunity till we were found out! After that it was in homes of known people who could not tolerate ‘the noise’ after a couple of classes. Finally, a good soul in a slum 8 km away offered his hut for my classes. That was a good 90 minutes walk from my house.
When was this?
Around 1982. My guru was skeptical when he saw the place, but he obliged on seeing our eagerness to learn. Shakti had left school after 9th class and the money she used to get from working in her family textile business went towards paying my guru for my dance classes which cost Rs.80 a month and Rs.20 for his conveyance. That was a lot of money for us at that time. I used to pretend I was going to the temple at 5am, Shakti used to come from her house and we used to rush all the way across town to class and despite walking for 90 minutes, I danced so vigorously that my guru used to get tired just watching me! On the way back, we used to bring vibuti and kumkum to substantiate our claim but our families had their suspicions all the same!!
In the course of a year, I learnt a full margam and got ready for my arangetram in 1983. I presented ‘Mohamana’ in bairavi, a saveri Jathiswaram, husseini Padam, kanada Thillana in rupaka tala. ‘Mohamana’ is my favorite piece and I think I dance it quite nicely because I see people enchanted with my performance.
How did your arangetram go?
I actually had the audacity to personally go to the Madurai Mayor’s house and invite him to be chief guest. No one believed he actually would, even my family whom I finally informed, but the Mayor did keep his word and it was a great event at the Thamuka Maidan in Madurai where many important functions take place. Shakti and I had to cycle across town to collect the wig and we returned just in time for me to make up and start. From then till now, we do our own makeup. It rained heavily but I felt the heavens were blessing me. I was the talk of Madurai that evening.
What about the orchestra?
My guru had his own group. He sang and did the nattuvangam. He used to sing beautifully. Venu on the flute, Thyagarajan on the mridangam were all experienced vidwans who accompanied stalwarts like Sikkil Ramaswamy. My guru died a month later. It was as if God had kept him alive for a year just to teach me and conduct my arangetram. I started giving many performances after that.
How did you become Kittappa Pillai’s student?
Being a fan of Vyjayanthimala, I wanted to learn under her guru too. Kittappa Pillai had just received the Isai Perarignar Award and I knew from magazines that he was then at Thanjavur after returning from his travels abroad. So, we rushed off to Thanjavur to become his students, which was easier said than done. To become his student is nothing short of a miracle. He said he had heard about me but he had a hectic travel schedule in India and abroad. He would ask us to attend Vyjayanthimala’s performance in Bangalore or Sudharani’s performance in Chennai and on seeing us there, he would wonder why we were there! It was hard on us financially, but we persisted relentlessly for nearly a year and like a miracle, he one day announced, “Come tomorrow. We will start class”. We rushed back to Madurai and returned the following day with the flowers and fruits for guru dakshina.
It is the most unforgettable moment in my life. When I started my adavu classes under the great guru Kittappa Pillai in the fabulous hall of the Ponniah Natya School for the first time, I was brimming with happiness. It was like heaven. The more I danced, the more I felt I was nearing the treasure at a rainbow’s end. In a year, I learnt a full margam. He usually did not teach rare compositions to everybody on completing a margam, but he made an exception in my case. I felt so honored. However hungry I was, I danced on. His wife, such a kind lady, could always tell from my face and used to have food ready for me when class was over. She passed away barely 2 years after master did.
Where did you stay when you were his student?
I stayed at his house. He has a beautiful hall upstairs.
What kind of a guru was he?
I was always treated as a member of his family. He was so understanding and approachable, that one could go to him for advice on anything from dance to personal problems. After class, he would lay down his big bulk on the bench. I would sit beside him and ask his advice on dance, my fears, my gender problems, if I should continue dance. He always gave me affection and encouragement to pursue my goals. He had confidence in me that I would shine one day.
I have performed in this very same Mylapore Fine Arts in 1987 with Kittappa Pillai doing the nattuvangam. It was for Cosmos Club. He was foremost a great musician and mridanga vidwan, and only then a dance guru. When he got carried away with a student’s dance, he would burst into song himself and sing the raga in an innovative way that was all his own. Nobody could handle Shankarabaranam or Khamas the way he did and the vocalist unable to match his skills would keep quiet and let him sing. The bhavam he gave the ragas was like the gentle drizzle, like the soft wind blowing. His sangatis were out of this world; I have them on my tapes. Once during my performance, he just turned and said ‘Shabash’ (Well done) and that is still in one of my cassettes and I treasure it. I have many cassettes with compositions sung by him.
I think it’s my poorva janma punya (blessings of a past life) that I am blessed to have been his student in spite of the way I was born. To learn from him was a divine experience, I considered him a siddha purusha. Even in his 80’s, his memory power was so amazing; he had better memory than a computer. If I forgot a korvai, he would correct it to perfection. He remembered the smallest movement of an item done many years ago in such minute, exact detail. He was an amazing person. Even 4 days before he died, my guru clarified some doubts I had about a theermanam, which I was to perform in the Dussera Festival.
My guru was very interested in my welfare. He knew his end was nearing and gave me a testimonial in 1995 to help me in my career and that is my most prized possession. He was very appreciative of the nayaki roles I did and advised me to write a research paper on ‘nayaki bhavam’. He gave me lots of tips on that.
Can you elaborate on the ‘nayaki bhava’?
Many males do female roles in a beautiful manner, like Shivaji Ganesan did. Sometimes, the makeup man gets the credit. But I think there’s a difference in the way I do the female roles.
Whenever I start a project or have to interpret a song, I delve deep into the inner meanings, the emotions behind the words, the situation, so I can give the correct bhava interpretations. So, I do a lot of research, read a lot, dissect the pada artha and arrive at the final presentation. Artha should not become anartha!! So, along the way, I have collected some very rare books and scripts and these are my prized possessions, my little library.
What are some outstanding / cherished moments in your career?
It was a wonderful experience that my guru and I worked together as teachers in the Thanjavur University in the Music Dept between 1990 and 1994. I worked as his assistant. After a lapse of 20 years during which no performance had taken place in the Madurai Meenakshi temple, Shakti and I performed there to a massive gathering this year on January 16th.
Are you proficient in music too?
I have a basic knowledge of music. I am going to concentrate more now on learning music. I want to learn better English too, so I can express myself better!
How different is it to perform to a rural audience?
People who come for Sabha programs have a basic knowledge unlike the rural audience and that’s where the challenge lies. I always perform in the remote towns with trepidation and the greatest compliment is when someone comes up to me and cites some instance from my presentation and I know I’ve been understood. I am proud to say I’m a regular performer at these villages and towns.
What response did you get when you opened your dance school in Madurai?
I established Narthaki Nrutya Kalalaya in 1989 in Madurai. I had no problems in getting students, because it was well known that I was guru Kittappa Pillai’s disciple, so students came readily to me to learn. I always perform my guru’s compositions solo. Now I perform duets with Shakti and some group productions with my students.
Shakti has been a great support to you.
Yes, I won’t be what I am today if not for her sacrifices. We started learning together. Due to lack of money (I had none, she had some), she let me reap the benefits. She became Kittappa Pillai’s student much later, but guru passed away before she could finish learning a margam. Now I am teaching Shakti all that I know. Whenever we perform together, she’s Kannan to my Radha, Shiva to my Shakti, nayaka to my nayaki.
How do you see your future?
I feel I have come about half way along my journey, but I still have a long way to go. Shakti and I have made a systematic life for ourselves, a schedule. A time to eat, a time to sleep, a time to rehearse, a time to perform and so on.
Will you teach the rare compositions you know to others or you want to keep it to yourself?
What will I gain by keeping it to myself? I will teach anyone who’s genuinely interested but I must be convinced that this person will retain the purity of the composition. My guru preserved intact what his guru taught him, I want to do the same and I want my student to do likewise.
I have also done some novel interpretations of old themes from the works of Subramania Bharathi and Bharathidasan and some rare and little known pieces centering on heroine oriented themes from Thevaram, Thiruvachakam, Thirupugazh, Divya Prabandham and other religious epics.
I am looking for someone who will dance like me one day, with the same nayaki bhavam. Even after 200 years, I must live on in history as an outstanding dancer.