Mohiniyattam, the dance of the enchantress

"Whither the hand goes, the glance follows,
Whither the glances lead, the mind follows,
Whither the mind goes, there the mood follows
Whither the mood goes, there is “rasa” born."
- Abhinaya Darpana

Kerala, the lush green strip on the coast of the Arabian Sea of the Indian subcontinent is noted for its natural beauty and for its traditional art forms. Mohiniyattam, like Kathakali, is born in Kerala. It is as if the dance had sprung from its landscape and seascape. The graceful lasya-rich movements of the dancer, is in tune with Nature. Its circular and semicircular movements harmonise with the ballet of the waves, wind-flown paddy fields and swaying slender palms in rain and sun. Performing arts in Kerala were attached to the temples as part of ritual worship. Koodiyattam, the oldest Sanskrit theatre that claims 2000 years of tradition, was part of ritual worship. Besides, temples were the places of learning that disseminated values through art and literature. Stories from Epics were the themes of all performing arts throughout India.

mohiniyattom picture

Women performers were part of the cultural scene in Kerala. Sculptures depict wielders of percussion instruments and dancers. Nangyar koothu was a solo performed by women. Yet at some point of time in our cultural history, women withdrew from the limelight. The first reference to Mohiniyattam is found in Vyavaharamala, by Mahamangalam Narayanan Namboodiri in 16th cy A.D.

In 19th CY Maharaja Swathi Thirunal of Travencore did much to enhance Mohiniyattam. Under the king's patronage it was systematized and brought from temple precincts to Royal courts and it grew as the unique dance form of Kerala acquiring distinctive classical dimension. Iryimman Thampi, a talented poet and musician of his court, composed varnams and padams to enrich Mohiniyattam. And it crystallized as a solo dance tradition with a distinct repertoire. Yet, reforms that borrowed from karnatic style of singing did not affect the pure dance style and its basic tenor. The music retained its distinctive quality of Sopana Sageetha saili. The lyrics are in Maniprvalam, a mixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit. Its themes from epics, concentrated on feminine love in its myriad forms. With Krishna cult occupying center stage, devotional love and maternal love and romantic love became more prominent than carnal love.

The aharya: white and gold, stylized hairstyle, hand gestures, reminiscent of mural paintings of Kerala, is distinct and unique like that of Koodiyattam or kathakali. The graceful movements in medium tempo, swaying movements of the upper body with legs placed in a stance, and the lasya bhava enacted by mature women to the accompaniments of vocal music with Veena, Venu, Madhalam and Idakka create a world of enchantment. . Truly, the dancer is Mohini, the archetypal enchantress!

The past history
Nirmala panikker of Natana kairali, Irinjalakkuda who has done extensive research traces the roots of Mohiniyattam to native traditions of worship of Mother goddess: Polikali, Esal, Chandanam, and kurathy. . She has revived some of these that have disappeared from the scene owing to the fall of devadasi system.

mohiniyattom picture

The Devadasi dance tradition, developed through the temple danseuses, is an important part of India's cultural history. Bharatnatyam in Tamil Nadu, Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh, Odissi in Orissa and Mohiniyattam in Kerala took shape in this institution. These dance forms in the long run developed a classical status. It was a common custom in all places that a maiden under went a symbolic marriage with the deity before she became a Devadasi, the servant of the god. In Kerala, it was called 'Penkettu'. The Manipravala compositions of the 13th century mention devadasis of Kerala. Famous dancers like Unniyachi, Unniyati, Unnichirutevi and others are described as expert exponents of the Devadasi art, attached to Siva temples residing in their precincts. Most of the stone inscriptions containing references to Devadasis in Kerala, have been discovered from Siva temples. Saiva form of religion has an antiquity of about 4000 years. Dance was an important factor in the worship of Siva, 'Nataraja'.

Kulasekhara Perumal, the ruler of Kerala, 9th century A.D dedicated his own daughter to the Srirangam temple. And maidens from royal or Brahmin families became Devadasis. Kerala history has many examples of beautiful and attractive ladies of Devadasi sect being accepted as consorts by kings. It is said that Devadasis, Kandiyiu Teviticci Unni, Cherukarakkuttatti and others had been queens. Uttara Chandrika, the heroine of the 'Manipravala Kavyam' belonged to the Chirava royal family. In the long run the devadasi sect developed sub sects: temple dancers, courtesans and dancers for religious festivals.

When temples lost their influence, when kings lost their supremacy to foreign powers, when missionary activities began, devadasis suffered an ignominious fall. When Western arts began its influence, our performing arts eclipsed. The dance form was called Dasiyattam with contempt. Its rise from the ashes

After a period of decline owing to lack of patronage, the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon resurrected it along with kathakali when he founded Kerala kalamandalam. With the help of performers like Kalamandalam Kalyanikutti Amma and Chinnammu Amma, Vallathol codified and revived "Dasiyattam". Phoenix-like, Mohiniyattam rose from its ashes, a distinctive dance form of Kerala in style and application. From there it leapt to the Indian scene when Rabindra Natha Tagore took Kalamandalam kalyanikutti Amma, known as the mother of mohiniyattam, to teach the dance-form in Santhinikethan. Cultural Ambassadors like kalamandalm kshemavathi, Idrani Rehman, and Bharathi Sivaji, introduced the charm of Mohiniyattam abroad. Dancer Kanaka Rele has established Nritya Maha Vidyalaya in Mumbai to promote Mohiniyattam along other dance forms of India.

Now, Mohiniyattam belongs to concert halls like Bharatha Natyam, Odissi or Kathak. A solo performance in the traditional form starts with Cholkettu, an invocation to Siva and Devi which is followed by Jathiswaram, a display of pure dance that synchronizes with swaras, music. Then comes Varnam a harmonious blend of nrita(pure dance) and nritya (abhinaya). Padam on the other hand highlights facial expressions as the theme evolves. The combination of dance steps and the drama of facial expressions in lasya style is a rare treat to dance lovers. The face of the dancer becomes the arena where the nava rasas, nine emotions, unique to Indian aesthetics, tell tales. The concluding dance is thillana where all the steps and their combinations are reenacted with the singular dominant expression of the major theme of the dance piece. It is almost similar to the singing of Mangalam in a karnatic musical concert.

Mohiniyattam, like other traditional dance forms of India, goes on evolving with experiments by innovative artists. Dancers, for modern stage, have choreographed Malayalam lyrics besides Jayadeva's Aashtapathy in classical and semi classical styles. Instead of solo performances they try group recitals. There are different groups trying to establish different schools of performance. Mohiniyattam today deals with a range of themes from love to nature enchanting visitors and dance lovers from different parts of the world who fall in love with Kerala, God's own country.

Padma Jayaraj, padmajayaraj@sancharnet.in
Padma Jayaraj was a professor of English literature at the University of Calicut. She is now a freelancer, focussing on kerala's unique art forms and regularly writes for online magazines