09 July 2010

Mallika’s makeover

Meet world famous dancer Mallika Girish Panicker, who was a man until her sex change last year

By Manasi Paresh Kumar

Her long fingers gesture delicately, as Mallika Girish Panicker emphasises her point.
With her neatly pleated saree, kohl-lined eyes and pinned up hair, the world renowned Bharatnatayam exponent who is based in Singapore, would give the best looking women a run for their money. So when you are told that 38-year-old Mallika actually began life as Girish Panicker, your jaw naturally drops!
Mallika, who was in the city for a performance, is among the popular artists in both the Chennai and the Bangalore dance circuit. She was tutored in the world famous Kalakshetra School of Fine Arts in Chennai as a young boy of seven. In a society where transvestites and folks of the alternative gender are shunned, Mallika’s success is a lesson to take home. She spent almost 20 years consolidating her position as a male dancer, only to undergo sex change last year. “As male dancers, we are always perceived as effeminate and in my case, it was a little more. I always did have the urge in me, but when I was asked by the Singapore Institute of Fine Arts to take up the job of a male dance teacher, I had to put any plans on hold,” she explains.
Thousands of students have trained under Mallika (then Girish) and 14 of her students even had their arangetram which is a record in itself. But her natural urge took over and in 2009, she decided to quit the institute and begin her own school. “I began Akasha Ganga, where now more than 120 children learn the art, and simultaneously underwent sex change operation in Malaysia.” It was a long process and took more than 15 sittings, but Mallika received immense support from the community and her students’ parents. “Before I underwent the operation, I spoke to the parents of every student and they said that it did not matter what my sex was, it was my art that mattered. Vyjayanthimala Bali was all for the idea when I discussed it and when she did, a lot of others too opened their minds,” she says.
So what propelled her to make the change? “I wanted to be somebody’s wife and no one would accept me as a transvestite in that role. I had to do this” she explains. Have the proposals poured in since. “Oh yes, I have a lot of men who want to marry me, but they need to allow me to continue my dance,” she says.
So how has life changed as a dancer for her? “Well, for one thing, I am very happy that I can plait my hair into a long braid. I always hated that about being a male dancer. A lot of people ask me if it was difficult to convince my family. It was only my sister and she is very happy about it. The decision was not a difficult one, neither were the reactions,” she says. Her word of advice when you see a transgender person is not to be repelled but to accept them. “You will be pleasantly surprised.”
Before i underwent the operation, i spoke to the parents of every student and they said that it did not matter what my sex was, it was my art that mattered — Mallika Girish Panicker
More on Mallika http://maalikagirishpanickker.info/default.aspx