Methil Devika as Kannaki, the central character of the Tamil epic Silapathikaram
I fell at his feet in awe, tears drenching my face. I don’t know why I cried. We both didn’t speak much. I asked him if he remembered me, and he said yes. We were meeting each other after 23 years.
My first stage performance was when I had attended my cousin’s debut on-stage performance—and during the interval—as I stood in the green room (my parents were amongst the audience), my cousin’s teacher suddenly dressed me up as Krishna so I could pose on stage as the blue-skinned God. She had intended it to be a filler while my cousin rested. I did more than just pose, and as the music began, I directed the mridangist to start playing. I began dancing much to the surprise of the teacher, the orchestra, and my parents who didn’t know what was going on. I was two years old; those were my first steps and i had already marked my fate without a Guru.
My parents didn’t waste time finding me a teacher in Dubai. As fortune played its cards, they found me the best that I could get—even more strangely, far away from India’s lush shores, in the barren land of Dubai, more than three decades ago.
I became Guru Natarajan’s first student. I rarely call someone a Guru. There are only dance teachers these days; there are few dance Gurus. But my first initiator—Kalaimamani S Natarajan—is someone I call my Guru.
A forerunner of the ancient Bhagavata Mela Nataka tradition—a rare temple/theatre art—of Melathur in South India, Guru Natarajan worked as an engineer in Dubai. As a child, I was amused by my Guru’s performances dressed as a female. I wondered why he donned a female costume. I didn’t know that he belonged to a very profound tradition—Pakarnattam or the art of transformation—until I studied a chapter on him in my later years.
Guru Natarajan is known not just for transforming into another but also for the “trance” aspect in transformation. A foreign scholar, who wrote a book on trance in transformation in ritualistic art forms like the Theyyam, mentions that his endless queries finally culminated in Guru Natarajan.
In my own performances of late, I had wondered why people and critics emphasised on the trance bit of my dance, be it Mohiniyattam or Kuchipudi. It was only after I witnessed the night-long Prahlada Charitam (The Story of Prahlad) and the ferocious Narasimha Avatara (half-man, half-lion)—enacted by my Guru in Melathur—that I realized the gravity of the trance aspect of the ritual, which Guru Natarajan had mastered.
The divine Narasimha was controlled by the village folk lest it vent its ferocity on demon king Hiranyakashipu, father of Prahlad. And after Hiranyakashipu had symbolically been annihilated, the avatar—still in a state of trance—was taken around the village. His devotees would whisper into his ear as he rendered solutions to all their conundrums for the year.
It was a tradition that all the villagers participated in, and so the art could never go out of the precincts or be performed at any other proscenium stage. Guru Natarajan didn’t just dress as Narasimha. He became the God as the villagers adorned him with the deity’s mask from the temple after his many days of fasting and trance.
Today, I am neither a Bharatnatyam dancer nor a practitioner of Bhagavata Mela Natakam, but as I traveled back from Melathur, I asked myself what I had actually imbibed from him. I knew it was something significant, that it had helped me rise as a dancer. It dawned on me gradually that my Guru had perhaps unknowingly handed over as Deeksha—or initiation—the ability to transform through trance. The child in me had picked up the skill of Pakarnaattam, which pervades everything that a dancer regards as ritualistic, from him.
I was his first student and he was my first Guru. It was a special relationship, for it’s one thing to find oneself a great teacher but quite another thing to fall into the lineage of a great tradition of which I am part. And I am so grateful to him for that.