Her dance demonstration was confined to one of her finest compositions Dundubhi Nrityam.
It is known as the dance of enchantment and yet an interaction among Mohiniattam voices will spell less than harmony, given myriad manifestations of the dance, each with its own logic, at variance with the others. Unlike most dance traditions where varying schools of approach take off from one monolithic framework, despite the mainstream living tradition of Kalamandalam from the time when Mohiniattam was revived by two great art aesthetes, Mahakavi Vallatol and Mukundaraja, in 1930, this dance has grown in individualised styles, visualised according to the perception of now well-known practitioners.
With dancers from these variously perceived schools having gained name and fame to now devise a general format outline, everybody subscribes to, is well nigh impossible. But even while agreeing to disagree amicably, practitioners need to meet and interact. If the two-day colloquium, Kaisiki Vritti: Manifestations of Mohiniattam, at Meghdoot Theatre III of Rabindra Bhavan, jointly organised by Sangeet Natak Akademi
(SNA) with Trikaala Gurukulam, headed by scholar-dancer Deepti Bhalla who proposed and designed the event, passed off with no rancour scars, one can put it down to careful planning and diplomacy on the part of the organisers in not allowing disagreements to become overly disturbing.
Kanaka Rele’s keynote lecture on the connotation of the term, kaisiki vritti is activity characterised by beauty but with no gender implications for, even Lord Shiva’s dance of angaharas was kaisiki vritti as was Krishna’s while performing raas with the gopis. Referring to the etymology of the word kaisiki, Rele interpreted the word as derived from kesh or hair and in support of her theory, she drew on the narrative mentioned both in Natyashastra and in Silappadikaram, wherein Vishnu, in his battle against Madhu and Kaitabha after creating various types of activities (vrittis) like bharati (verbal), arabhati (employing perfect sthanakas and angaharas while fighting), satvativritti created with his unchanging inner strength, finally creating kaisiki vritti when he gathered his hair and tied it into a top knot.
The speaker dilating on Body Kinetics of Mohiniattam spoke of the revolution movement style of the dance and how the graceful circular movements (andolika) of the torso created a geometry that enchantctivating centres leading to Kundalini Shakti. Her student, Saji, captivated the gathering with her rendition of the item set to music in Samanta Malahari.
The other scholarly approach was that of Deepti Bhalla whose research into old texts and indigenous music traditions of Kerala with Kerala talams strengthened by her mother Leela Omchery, who is a scholar of Sopanam Sangeet, has resulted in the fashioning of a repertoire, which while faithful to the technique of her guru late Kalyani Kutty Amma of Thripunithura, has uncovered several desi items from Kerala’s indigenous music traditions like Kshetra Sthava Varnam of Irayiman Thampy and his Malayalam Talamalikai Padams like Endu Chayyendu Jnaan Ayyo. She has, through her research, discovered compositions of Swati Tirunal who is famous for his compositions in the typical Carnatic classical style, Sopanam-style Padams and what is known as Samvaada Padam. Deepti has also brought to limelight Malayalam Javalis called Vaathil Thura Paattukal by Kuttykunju Thankacchi. Being a trained classical vocalist, Deepti sang, jointly with her mother’s disciple, segments of some of the compositions she had set to dance movemen.
Her dance demonstration was confined to one of her finest compositions Dundubhi Nrityam. The first of the Mohiniattam specialists from outside Kerala was Shanta Rao, who after learning from Krishna Panicker, became a big name outside the state. Today, very few talk about her for she left no students. Other known Mohiniattam practitioners from outside Kerala, like Kanak Rele and Bharathi Shivaji , one has noticed over the years, still find the need to constantly mention scholars and teachers from Kerala with whom they have had interactions, to legitimise their Kerala credentials. Both these practitioners never fail to mention their close connections to the son of Vallathol and to his son, to Kavalam Narayana Panikar, the theatre specialist, who insisted that Sopanam music in which he composed lyrics was the only music to which Mohiniattam should be rendered, for nothing else suited its movement form better, and several percussionists and scholars.
Kanak Rele’s approach, summed up by the dancer herself as being shaped by her dip into the old texts along with what she was able to make out of the pre-revival doyennes (very old by the time she saw them) Kalpuratte Kunjukuttyyamma, Tottacheri Chinnammuamma in 1972, and whatever she saw of practitioners like Kalyanikutty Amma plus her exposure to Kerala’s indigenous traditions. While her style has been criticised for its strong ‘Kathakali’ flavour, thanks to her long training in Kathakali Stree Vesham under Panchali Karunakara Panikkar, there is no doubt that she injected into Mohiniattam, items based on heroines like Gandhari and the hunchback devotee of Krishna or even Ravana, getting away from the purely bhakti, shringar, karuna languishing female types of the dance.
Bharati Shivaji’s entry, after some Mohiniattam training under Radha Marar, was when SNA head Kamaladevi Chhatopadhyay who believed that Mohiniattam badly needed support, sent her in 1978 to Kerala to work with Kavalam Narayana Panikar and others like Vasudevan Namboodiripad and Raghava Warrier on a task of reviving Mohiniattam. In 1982, Bharati presented the first of programmes after working with Kavalam Narayana Panikar with Ganapati Stuti, Mukhachalam, Purappadu and Jeeva. Her strong point was stage presence and an innate feel for the exquisite lyricism of Mohiniattam – her work of expanding its contours instinctively taking from Kerala’s indigenous forms like Krishnattam, Arjuna Nrittam, vaitari-s (rhythmic syllables or Bols) from traditions like Tayambaka, Panchavadyam, helped by Edekka and talam expert Appu Marar.
She even danced Mohiniattam to Tagore’s Bhanusingher Padavali, and along with her daughter Vijayalakshmi choreographed Swan Lake in Mohiniattam based on Tchaikovsky’s music. After all the old history, Bharati’s disciple presenting Jeeva did not do justice. And Vijayalakshmi’s impromptu talk (not part of the printed programme) stressed the devotional angle — which in a discussion related more to the performative approach, was not crucial. And besides, spirituality is a common aspect of all the dance traditions.
Kavalam’s vetoing Carnatic music (which from the time of the ruler Karthika Tirunal who wrote the Balaramabharatam had Tanjore musicians in their court), and Swati Tirunal’s prodigious compendium of songs is all set to Carnatic classical tradition. With Kavalam’s advocacy of Sopanam music for Mohiniattam, within Kerala, even Kalamandalam with its repertoire set to the Carnatic Classical tradition (largely compositions of Swati Tirunal), found its approach being questioned. One of its early students Kalyanikutty Amma, after leaving Kalamandalam and settling down in Thripupunithura after marrying Kathakali dancer Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, veered away from what she had learnt under Krishna Panikkar at Kalamandalam, and guided by G.
Venkatachalam as well as some inputs from her husband, forged an entirely new repertoire codifying Mohiniattam movement into Taganam, Jaganam, dhaganam, Sammishram adavus. Even her style got something of a beating with Kavalam Naryana Panik kar’s Sopanam thrust, which Kalyanikutty Amma disagreed with. So within Kerala, one finds the Kalamandalm, Kavalam Narayana Panikkar approach and Kalyani-kutty Amma approach differing. Totally direct in her approach, Kala Vijayan, the daughter of Kalyanilutty Amma, spoke of the fact that Mohini-attam had faced several changes from time to time – and that a base format had never been attempted. If 1937-40 had seen its revival at Kalamandalam, her mother in 1950 had introduced many changes. In 1967, Kalamandalam Satyabhama who came to learn from her mother had experienced the adavus, teermanams, the charis, the Karanams that Kalyanikutty Amma had introduced. She herself had added to what her mother had contributed.
Nirmala Panikar, based in Irinjalakuda, had worked on Kerala’s regional forms and her research in Nangiyar kootu, revived some of the áttams which had been part of the tradition that she found traces of in Silappadikaram’s Avinaya kootu. In her absence, her student Sandra Pisharody read out her paper and gave a neat demonstration of Ammanaattam, a dance play (kreeda) done with seeds. She ably demonstrated how the face changed its hue or colour according to the emotive state of the individual. The face reddening with anger was very deftly shown. This type of abhinaya, mentioned in the texts, but rarely known today is part of the inherited legacy of the Kodungaloor family.
Deemed the Mecca of Kerala’s classical art forms, Kalamandalam cannot be adequately represented without its inevitable legends like Kshemavathy who described the rigour of the 5 am to 8 pm routine the students were put through with learning of music, Kannu sadhakam (eye exercises done with clarified butter applied in the eyelids to make them supple enough to move easily), and the contemporary trends coming in with group productions, which M.N. Kurup, then in the SNA, encouraged and all the character types with Vasudeva Panikar’s music and Kerala talams. But when she mentioned Mohiniattam being done to ghazals, one felt uneasy. And Kshemavathy of all her repertoire danced to a lyric, now a very popular tape in Kerala Krishna nee ennai arivilla.
With heavy orchestration of instruments like cassio, there is a hyped emotive rendition of the song which is different from the bhav filled but sedate dignity of music for Mohiniattam. If modern poetry is appreciated, could it not be set to music suiting the dance in ts more conventional sobriety?
Kalamandalam Sugandhi touching on the margi/desi joint influence in Mohiniattam felt that studying the Sastras could provide a good reference point for practitioners.
Working in Trivandrum (Tiurvanan-thapuram), Kalamandalam Vimala Menon, referring to Assimilation and Rationale of Choreography ,demonstrated bits of items which she had added on to the repertoire, and some had been based on music composed by her daughter Vinduja Menon, a good singer whose Jatiswaram in Bahudari was another contribution. As an example of Kathakali/ Mohiniattam connection, she presented (set to raga Hindolam), a part of the Attakatha Unni Warrier’s Attakatha, Karna Sapadham.
Some aspects of Balaramabharatam based on a paper by V.S. Sharma (Trivandrum) whose student Rechita Ravi read out with some demonstrations and video material, which had more of Usha Nangyar’s nava rasa depiction. Karthika Thirunal, the author, while not dilating on Mohiniattam aesthetics does mention Mohini Natanam and Mohini Nilaya Sthaanam, while being silent on both Kathakali or Koodiyattam.
With so many skeins in approaches, what was heartening was to see the next generation of dancers who were the participating Observers like Neena Prasad, Pallavi Krishnan, Aishwarya Warrier, Gopika Varma and Mandakini Trivedi – all of whom presented snippets of items and seemed full of confidence and sure about the future. They had ideas and were not confused by so many manifestations of Mohiniattam. And that is a healthy sign for the future.
The writer is an eminent dance critic