Poverty to Presidential Honor: The Incredible Story of India’s Transgender Dancer

Judge People On Their Actions, Not On Appearance.

“A eunuch is dancing today” said my neighbor Gita “I want to see her. Or, should I say ‘him’? Or ‘it’? Will you keep a seat for me?”

Gita was referring to Dr. Narthaki Natarajan who defied all odds to become the first transgender artist honored by the President of India.

“She is transgender” I said.

“Once a eunuch, always a eunuch” said Gita “What about my seat?”

Transgender folks have been ridiculed in India from time immemorial. They were employed as jesters and concubines in ancient royal courts. Now they’re called ‘ hijra ‘, a derogatory Urdu word meaning ‘leaving your own tribe’. Their very existence was inconsequential until the Government of India recognized the third gender as an official category in 2014.

I’m shocked that even in the 21st century, we continue to ostracize a group of people whose sexual identities happen to be different from those assigned to them at birth. We ignore the trauma they undergo from childhood due to gender ambiguity; it is not their fault that their mind disowns their biological gender. Western companies are more welcoming of LGBTQ employees; although they face some discrimination, a small number is rising to the top. Most MNCs have diversity departments that ensure hiring from this underrepresented minority.

Meanwhile, we Indians engage in cruel rituals to banish LGBTQ folks from civil society. They suffer brutal stone pelting, assault and verbal abuse in public places like railway stations, bus stands and movie theaters. They can’t marry. They are denied jobs even when fully qualified. They cannot vote or own property. Homeowners evict them once their gender ambiguity is known.

Hunger drives them to extortion: you may have experienced such groups singing in trains or chasing you along the road. Others perform in private ceremonies, beg or become sex workers.

It was into this heartless society that Narthaki was born. She was male at birth and her parents named her Natarajan.

As a child, Natarajan was enamored by movie actresses and often choreographed dance sequences to their songs. His family discouraged this as they felt it would feminize him. His only supporter was his friend Sakthi.

Both were downright penniless but determined not to become sex workers like thousands before them.

Natarajan and Sakthi struggled with gender ambiguity as teenagers. Their interest in dance grew in equal proportion to the opposition from their families. They would sneak out from home on the pretext of visiting temples, but go to dance class instead. Sometimes Natarajan rehearsed in a graveyard to a one-person audience of Sakthi because it was the only place their families wouldn’t find them.

At 16, Natarajan and Sakthi were banished from their homes. They slept on the streets, performed in small temples and took on menial jobs so they could eat.

One day, Natarajan heard of a Bharatnatyam teacher who trained top movie actresses. He approached the teacher, requesting to accept him as disciple. The teacher refused.

Natarajan became a regular fixture at the teacher’s recitals. He was accepted after a year of repeated appeals to his teacher.

Danseuse ‘Narthaki’ Natarajan had arrived.

The next fifteen years saw the glorious transformation of Natarajan from an untrained dancer to top student with deep knowledge of music and dance. He absorbed the subtle nuances of the female form and executed them to perfection in his recitals. His mindset, physical appearance, voice and dressing became entirely female. His teacher named him ‘Narthaki’, female dancer.

As disciple of a celebrity teacher, Narthaki now acquired a label of credibility. Maestros noticed her skills at solo performances. She was blurring gender boundaries, an unprecedented step in aristocratic dance circles.

Today Narthaki is invited to perform at prestigious dance festivals worldwide. She is top graded artist for national television channels, senior fellow at the Oslo College of Music and at our Department of External Affairs. Her research papers have won prizes in international conferences. She received an honorary doctorate. The President of India gave her the Sangeet Natak Academy award, making her the first transgender recipient of the top honor for an Indian artist.

She and Shakthi run a dance school where they teaches transgender kids for free. Two hundred children, banished from their families, study in this residential school. That’s two hundred adults who will live their lives with dignity.

Narthaki’s transformational journey is proof that you CAN achieve any goal you set your mind to. Imagine the possibilities: a transgender child abandoned by family, left to die on the streets and ridiculed by community can be honored by the President. The child who her biological mother abandoned, now mothers two hundred children.

God knows we need more Narthakis. We need passion, grit and kindness. As an educated and empowered generation, it is time we recognize people for what they do, not what they look like.

It is time we recognize people for what they DO, not what they look like

It doesn’t matter if Narthaki is male or female. I am so proud of who she has become and super-excited to watch her recital.

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