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HomeFeaturesChennai transgender groups are living their Bharatnatyam dream—for respect, dignity, livelihood

Chennai transgender groups are living their Bharatnatyam dream—for respect, dignity, livelihood

Students of Sathya Sai Dance Academy are Tamil Nadu’s first transgender auto driver, talk show host, physiotherapist and many others.

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Selvi Santhosam takes her position in the middle of the terrace. “I dance well, ok! I have confidence,” she jokes looking at the other dancers. 

It is a muggy Sunday evening in Chennai’s Aminjikarai area, and construction work and sputtering autorickshaws provide the background noise, for the Bharatanatyam class designed exclusively for the transgender community. 

The group of five dancers, many of them in their late 30s, get ready for Alarippu, the first piece that Bharatanatyam dancers learn. Their sincere faces focus on their teacher setting the rhythm with mini cymbals. Their mission is to master these steps well enough to move on to more complicated dance postures. 

Tat Tai Ta Ha…,” says Master Shanmuga Sundaram, a renowned Chennai-based Bharatanatyam teacher. The dancers bring their palms together near their chests and begin eye movements. The whole sequence, which is for offering obeisance to the Gods and audience, lasts some moments before they all collapse on the floor. 

 They poke fun at each other’s age and aches and pains that come with it. “Now, why are you bringing up my age, Selvi?” Vaishnavi, who is also Tamil Nadu’s first transgender auto driver, protests. The group bursts into laughter. 

“We finished Alarippu in just three months,” says Selvi, excitedly. “Usually, it takes much longer…maybe even a year.” Selvi is a physiotherapist at a public hospital in Chennai and joined the academy in June this year when Kerala-based Sri Sathya Sai Orphanage Trust and Chennai-based NGO Sahodaran Foundation, one of the oldest LGBTQ organisations in India, came together to offer free one-year dance classes in Bharatanatyam. Presently, nine students are enrolled in this dance school. A similar school was started in Kochi in March. 

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Fighting prejudice 

Students at practice | Special arrangement
Students at practice | Special arrangement

At the academy’s inauguration, dancer K. Vanithasree said she was denied the opportunity to learn Bharatanatyam only because she was born a male 

Selvi has a similar story. From the time she turned ten years of age, she was keen to be a dancer, and would eagerly watch all the dance shows on DD Podhigai, Doordarshan’s Tamil language channel.

Later in college, when she was confused and thinking about transitioning, she was up against a different kind of resistance. “People will give excuses that they only teach kids,” Selvi says.  

“When they see me, at first, they don’t realise but when I start talking, they give me that ‘look’ which I am really familiar with.” 

Dance teachers have refused Selvi to her face or strung her out, asking her to come back in a couple of days or the following week. “In some places, I have asked openly ‘I am a transgender. Can I learn?’ and they will say ‘No!’,” she says. 

Selvi says she meditated on positive thoughts and willed this dance school into existence.

“I was getting older, and I felt perhaps I will never be able to learn to dance,” she says. “One day while I was meditating, I thought I wanted a good teacher, with good contacts, and that we should travel to many places and dance.” 

For the dancers at the school, some of them were away rehearsing for another show at the Sahodaran Foundation on Sunday, Master Shangmuga Sundaram was the answer. 

Master Shangmuga Sundaram with his students| Special arrangement
Master Shangmuga Sundaram with his students| Special arrangement

In many ways, he has a tough job teaching a complex dance form that is traditionally learnt when a child is six or seven years old. Sundaram says he encourages their “desire” to dance by providing an opportunity every Sunday evening for an hour and a half. “As far as I am concerned, art only requires interest. Age is no barrier,” he says. 

Since the school started, he is often asked how it feels to teach members of the transgender community. “I don’t see any difference. They are my students, I am their teacher,” he says. “My only goal is to make sure they dance on stage.” 

Sitting in the warm breeze, Selvi talks about how Vaishnavi has been a “huge inspiration” to her. 

On the day classes first began in June, she says, both of them were heavier. 

“When I first saw her three months ago, I thought she would watch us for a little while and then never come back,” Selvi laughs, teasing Vaishnavi about her age. “I thought she was never going to be able to dance but she is the one who is dancing really well. I am inspired.” 

As for Vaishnavi, who jokes she is permanently “36”, she admits to rethinking her decision to join a dance class. “After the class, when I apply the brake in my autorickshaw, my legs wobble,” she jokes. When classes first began, she says that her hands and legs moved in different directions. “But I feel I should definitely not leave this class since I was never given the opportunity before. We have a wonderful teacher who really understands us, and we have built a community here. We should all together achieve a name for ourselves.” 

The dancers speak of “dignity” and “respect” that they say they will achieve in this journey. “We are learning a beautiful art form. In the future, we should proudly call ourselves artists and stand together,” says Vaishnavi. 

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All part of learning  

Every week, the dancers are eager to get together on Sundays. They discuss on WhatsApp what Master has taught them the previous week, wait patiently for when he shows up to class and wonder if he will teach them something new. On most days, Sundaram is a tough taskmaster, asking them to practice what they have learnt. “It is important to practice,” he says. 

“Usually, if he teaches us something new, we mess it up the first time,” says Rose Venkatesan, another dancer and a talk show host. Her shows were hugely popular on the well-known Tamil channel Vijay TV. After class, Rose and Selvi say that they often head to Mylapore, a neighbourhood in the city packed with dance halls, and find a performance to watch. Observing other dancers, the way they move, the grace in their performances, is all part of the learning. 

Last week, Sundaram was invited as a chief guest to an Arangetram, a debut on-stage dance recital of a student, and took all his students along. “I had never seen an Arangetram before. I never knew how a performance starts, what the different elements are, how one should conduct oneself,” says Vaishnavi. 

The dancers feel true change will come when they master the art form, become teachers, and begin teaching students from all backgrounds. For now, they joke about preparing for a dance face-off with the Kerala school. “We should go on tour and check them out,” suggests Master Sundaram. “Yes, we should challenge them to a competition,” responds Selvi. 

“The title of the competition should be ‘Everybody can dance,’” says Vaishnavi. “Already my friend here says I have become old,” she says, looking at Selvi. “It looks like I will be willing to dance but nobody will be watching,” she says, laughing.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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