Narthaki Nataraj: True Devotee of Dance

For Rathna Kumar, there is no comparison between classical forms and contemporary pop culture trends. “There is an eternal quality about the classical dances,” says Kumar. “They are always beautiful. They are ever-changing, and always evolving because nothing is ever static. But the changes don’t take away from what it truly is.”

Kumar is a lifelong practitioner of Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form that originates from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and as the artistic director of Samskriti, tasks herself with bringing some of the finest performing artists from the Indian subcontinent to Houston. On March 18, Samskriti will present Colors of Dance: Seductive Evening by the award-winning Narthaki Nataraj.

Nataraj is widely regarded as India’s most prominent transgender classical dancer; in 2011 she became the first transgender woman to win the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in the category of Bharatanatyam. Though an accomplished and respected dancer, her journey to success was far from easy. As a child studying dance, she was bullied, beaten, and discouraged from pursuing a life in the arts. Despite living in an abusive environment, she made the decision to take on the name Narthaki, meaning female dancer, and pursue her desired profession.

Kumar’s esteem for Nataraj is not just based in admiration, but true friendship. Until recently, Kumar frequently performed in Chennai, one of the centers of Bharatanatyam dance, and Nataraj would be in attendance at each of her friend’s showcases.

When asked about her friend’s talent, Kumar’s praise is unwavering; Nataraj is an artist of the highest caliber, and it’s her passion for dance that defines her precise movement style. “Dance, music, painting are magnificent obsessions,” says Kumar. “There is nothing you can do to take them out of you, or your soul will die. Narthaki didn’t know that she would become successful, but it was imperative that she take a stand and do something about it. She was so obsessed, which I think was the catalyst of her life journey.”

In Bharatanatyam, as in most world dance forms, the student-teacher lineage is everything. It’s the difference between top caliber training and a second-rate understanding of the art. Nataraj’s guru was none other than Kittappa Pillai, whose own training originated with the Tanjore Quartet, the famous brothers who codified the Bharatanatyam technique. Their tradition was that of the devadasis, the temple dancers who devoted their lives to the deities through the performing arts.

Under British colonial rule, the devadasis were ostracized, and were often associated with the Nautch girls of Northern India, young women whose primary purpose was the entertainment of men. “The devadasis were servants of god,” says Kumar. “They were the pillars of the dance world. They were courted by kings, and ministers, and merchants. Some of them became second wives, and actually married one man and stayed true to him.” It is their legacy, not the folk dances of the Nautch girls, that was preserved by the Tanjore Quartet and has been carried on by their disciples, including Kittappa Pillai, and now Nataraj.

Colors of Dance: Seductive Evening is a program that will showcase the emotional depth of Bharatanatyam. “For us, the navarasams are the nine moods or states of mind,” says Kumar. “Each mood has a color associated with it. She’ll be showing the nuances of those emotions in the different dances. In this way dance can be very seductive.”

Bharatanatyam is actually only one of eight forms of classical Indian dance, as the temples of the different regions of India have their own ways of worshiping the Hindu pantheon of deities. Bharatanatyam is defined by its geometric arrangement of the body, with poses that accentuate angles and the intersecting lines of perpendicular limbs. And when the dancer is crouched or in what appears to be a deep second position, the body is capable of gorgeous voluminous circles and round figures. The technique requires the dancers to maintain the clarity of the shapes while executing the intricate and fast-paced footwork.

Kumar makes it clear that Nataraj is not a novelty. The brilliance of her dance has little to do with her transgender identity, but everything to do with her devotion and discipline to the art. “She’s a very attractive young lady, and she dances so beautifully,” says Kumar. “She shows you how pure dancing can be, and how it comes from the soul. Dance can transcend physical boundaries and when a person dances beautifully, you forget everything.”

Newcomers to classical Indian dance shouldn’t fear being unable to comprehend the aesthetics of Bharatanatyam. “It’s not as esoteric as you might think,” says Kumar. “It’s easy to understand the stories and Indian dancers always explain what they are performing beforehand, so that helps.”

And of course she wants everyone to experience the gem that is her friend, Narthaki Nataraj. “I think it is time to understand that dance belongs to everyone.”

For tickets and more information about Nataraj’s performance, please visit

About the Author

Adam Castañeda is a dancer and arts administrator in Houston, Texas. He is the Executive and Artistic Director of the Pilot Dance Project, a non-profit arts organization with the mission to empower and transform communities through innovative dance, theater, and visual art. With his company he has performed in evening-length works by Ashley Horn, jhon r. stronks, Jennifer Mabus, Jaime Walne-Fruge, and Heather VonReichbauer. When not with the Pilot Dance Project, he enjoys performing with Suchu Dance/Jennifer Wood.

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