Towards the end of the 19th century, Mohiniyattam, the traditional dance form of Kerala, went into decline. Then, in the first half of the 20th century, the art form started showing signs of revival, thanks chiefly to the setting up of the Kerala Kalamandalam in 1930. This cultural institution was established by the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon on the banks of the river Nila (also known as Bharatappuzha) in central Kerala. After a strenuous search, he managed to bring in a handful of exponents, who still remained in northern districts like Palakkad, to the institution in 1932. Among them, the last one to join the institution was Thottassery Chinnammu Amma, who began teaching there from 1950. She groomed a few pupils, the most prominent among them being Kalamandalam Sathyabhama (1937–2015).
Chinnammu and Sathyabhama have had their share of common disciples, among whom is Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, now 70 and residing in Thrissur, 30 km south of her alma mater. She is an acclaimed artiste, revered guru and noted scholar of Mohiniyattam.
V. Kaladharan is a senior art critic and author. He served Kerala Kalamandalam for three decades before retiring as its superintendent in 2013.
V. Kaladharan: When Kalamandalam sought to revive Mohiniyattam, Vallathol had to face derisive responses from society, especially from the domain of culture itself. The Malayalam satirist Sanjayan even drew a cartoon poking fun of the initiative. Those were not favourable times for a young girl to step into the world of dance, especially Mohiniyattam, which was looked down upon by moral crusaders. But the poet stood unfazed, and invited to Kalamandalam early exponents such as Madhavi Amma, Korattikkara Krishna Panikkar, and later Chinnammu Amma. How were you initiated into Mohiniyattam?
Kalamandalam Kshemavathy: I joined Kalamandalam at the age of eleven. I just wanted to dance; I had no idea about Mohiniyattam at that time. I learned dance there for five years; those days its repertoire was very limited. Actually, a good share of it came from Bharatanatyam. In fact, Mohiniyattam was not considered a main course.
I started learning under Chinnammu and Sathyabhama. The former, by then, was very old and had forgotten so much. As a result, she didn’t have much in her inventory to teach us. She taught me cholkettu, jatiswaram, a Telugu varnam, and a couple of other items. Chinnamma said she knew a tillana (cholkettu, jatiswaram, varnam, and tillana are all dance pieces that make up the repertoire of Mohiniyattam), but had forgotten it.
Meanwhile, A.R.R. Bhaskar Rao joined the faculty at Kalamandalam. He taught us certain items in Bharatanatyam.
VK: Those days, when the Kalamandalam troupe performed in public platforms, you too used to take part. Did you perform only Mohiniyattam?
KK: No, I would do items in Bharatanatyam too. Later, after I completed the course in Kalamandalam, I studied privately under Sathyabhama at her residence for a while. I learned a few varnams from her. Of all the varnams she taught me, the one I like best is one in ragam (raga) Todi called Danisamajendra Gamini (a composition by 19th-century Travancore king Swati Tirunal Rama Varma). It was after I left her that she started choreographing her own pieces, enriching Mohiniyattam in a big way. Her Todi varnam, I’d say, is matchless in structure and beauty. There has not been an instance anywhere in Indian classical dance where the nayika (heroine) presents Kamadeva (god of love) sending five arrows in as many ways, and her own reactions to each. Even now if I were to present this item, I’d be delighted.
VK: You learned many adavus (basic steps) in Kalamandalam. After leaving the institution, you went on to invent your own additions to adavus, right?
KK: I learned all the adavus in Sathyabhama’s inventory. Later, when I myself starting choreographing pieces, as I listened to the songs, I would imagine certain movements that would suit the lyrics. Then, when I taught the students, if the movement didn’t work I would replace it with another. That is how I developed some adavus.
VK: You, however, also went on to learn more of Bharatanatyam and then, a bit of Kuchipudi as well.
KK: Yes. In those days, I was doing more Bharatanatyam presentations than Mohiniyattam. I went to Madras and learned Bharatanatyam under masters like Muthuswamy Pillai, Chitra Visweswaran and Adayar Lakshman. Then I went on to learn Kuchipudi under Vempatti Chinnasathyam.
In those days, and for a while after that, I was enamoured by fast movements. Maybe it was because I was younger then. It took me a while to delve deeper into the aesthetics of the slower choreography of Mohiniyattam and appreciate it.
VK: When did you actually begin to focus on Mohiniyattam?
KK: See, in 1972, I was invited to perform Mohiniyattam in Delhi. I danced the item Dani Samajendra Gamini to much appreciation. Six years later, I was again invited to perform in Delhi as part of the Vallathol centenary celebrations. Every time I would think, why was I being called to present Mohiniyattam and not Bharatanatyam? Nonetheless, the feedback was encouraging. Once, I had to perform right after the top dancer, Sonal Mansingh, and I felt happy. A couple of years later, in 1980, Sonal called me to perform a solo Mohiniyattam piece at her institution (Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts) in Delhi. Soon after, there was another presentation for the Sahitya Kala Parishad, which won rave press reviews. The veteran dance and music critic Subbudu wrote a favourable review in The Times of India.
In 1981, I went on my first foreign tour to Paris.
VK: Is that when you started trying out your own choreography?
KK: I had started much before that. In 1975, I choreographed Venuganam, an item penned by the famous Malayalam poet Cherusseri. When I presented it with the vocal support of Kalamandalam Hyderali, it got a warm reception.
VK: In the case of Mohiniyattam, the influence of Bharatanatyam, which has always been popular here, has been a concern for its artistes. For example, instead of plaiting their hair, Mohiniyattam dancers have started putting it up in a konda (hair-bun) like Bharatanatyam dancers. The theermanam movements (the concluding movements of a dance sequence) also display the influence of their counterparts in Bharatanatyam. Similar to the Carnatic style, the mridangam has replaced the native instrument, maddalam, as the musical accompaniment. Western instruments like the violin are also being used. How much do you think all these changes influenced by Bharatanatyam have transformed the ethos of Mohiniyattam? Some of the dancers were very vocal about staying true to its native style. Ironically, two major dancers among them are non-Malayalis—Bharati Shivaji and Kanak Rele. They were encouraged by the theatre personality and scholar Kavalam Narayana Panicker, who strongly argued for the use of Kerala’s unique music style of Sopanam in the dance. As a Kalamandalam alumna, how do you look at it?
KK: As I mentioned earlier, change is essential for growth in any dance form. With time passing, change is inevitable. We are not entirely sure that the early version of Mohiniyattam, in the phase before it declined, followed the Sopanam music style. There is only hearsay about this phase. In the period of its revival by Kalamandalam, Chinnammu used the Carnatic style of music for her items. We have records of the dance form from this period. Most of the teachers from the early period were nattuvanars (dance choreographers and gurus, mainly in Bharatanatyam) who also taught Mohiniyattam. Even in the Sopanam style, there are many varieties, right? No one is quite sure about its original style. Personally, I think different styles should be encouraged, and if the audience appreciates them, let them grow. No one can say that only Malayalis should learn Mohiniyattam. Let outsiders (dancers from outside the state), too, come and learn Mohiniyattam. There is no harm in that. We, as Malayalis, also learn dance forms such as Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Kavalam is a great scholar, but I don’t really agree with his views. By the way, I myself have choreographed and danced to his songs.
VK: One of Kavalam’s observations is that, if one were to only listen to a Mohiniyattam performance and not watch it, one would not be able to distinguish it from a Bharatanatyam concert, because of its Carnatic influences. That is one of the arguments of those who argue for adherence to the pure native style of Mohiniyattam.
KK: Well, since the Travancore royal courts brought in the Thanjavur Quartet (19th century musician brothers from Tanjavur—Chinnaiah, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu) from Tamil Nadu to embellish our dance, it definitely would have a Bharatanatyam hangover! The sequential order of the Mohiniyattam concert might also be because of those masters’ influence. Also, in another instance of Bharatanatyam’s influence, when performing a varnam, we don’t use vocal accompaniments to do jatis as we do in Bharatanatyam; instead, the mridangam is played to support the movements. You see, when Bharatanatyam dancers take up Mohiniyattam, it is too simple and dull for them unless they employ such tactics. Likewise, for a Carnatic musician, the Sopanam style would be too simple and unsatisfactory. We cannot blame anyone for this.
VK: Unlike the other parts of India, Kerala boasts of quite a few classical performing arts, like Kathakali, Krishnanattam, Kutiyattam, Mohiniyattam, etc. The question that eminent dancers who practice only Mohiniyattam face is, how true can they stay to the dance’s individuality? How much do they take from other dance forms and how much should they dilute? For example, Kanak Rele’s school of Mohiniyattam uses many techniques drawn from Kathakali. There is nothing wrong with that. But as a practitioner with many years’ experience, what do you think of adopting techniques from other styles?
KK: If you are not sticking to the conventional classical concert mode, you can bring in as many innovations as you like. And if they help in popularising the dance form, well and good. Today, the one question that Mohiniyattam practitioners face is, how do they make Mohiniyattam more popular? As for me, I have even used the pulluvakkudam (a folk instrument from Kerala strung to lyrics praising snake-gods) as an accompaniment in one of my productions. I do it in items that have contemporary rather than classical sensibilities.
I have seen eminent dancers from other forms boldly experimenting in dance festivals outside Kerala. I keep doing it myself in Mohiniyattam. I have attempted to bring modern poetry to the stage. I even adapted Cherusseri’s poem as early as 1975. I was bored of doing the same expression of a lovelorn heroine and wanted to try something new. Then I adapted three poems by the poet Sugathakumari for the stage. Now I am bold enough to experiment with the techniques and music of Mohiniyattam. I believe that the dance form has to keep reinventing itself; otherwise it will stagnate and its growth will be minimal. Of course, if there are movements and techniques in Kathakali and Kutiyattam that will suit the piece that we are presenting, we will certainly go for it.
VK: Lasya is something that is not static. Its meaning changes with style and time. As a Mohiniyattam dancer, what does the word lasya mean to you?
KK: To me, it represents the body language of Mohiniyattam—anga chalanam, as we call it. Those swaying movements, resembling the rise and fall of waves, or the movement of coconut leaves in the wind, are typical of Mohiniyattam. If those movements are shorn away from your dance, how could you call it Mohiniyattam? Take group choreography, for example; how beautiful do its swaying movements look!
VK: For Odissi, the first striking feature that comes to mind is its tribangi or three-bent pose. For Bharatanatyam, it is its starting pose. What is the very first thing that represents Mohiniyattam?
KK: For me, it is its costume in the typical style of Kerala. All its movements are representative as well. Sringara (erotic love) is inherent in all its movements.
VK: The history of any dance form in India has been the story of it developing from a group to a solo performance. Does group choreography permit the dancer to go into the nuances of dance?
KK: We have to be very careful when we choreograph a particular item for a group performance. We have to make sure that the meaning of the verse is not lost upon the audience. It should not be adapted into a group performance just for the sake of it.
VK: Do all poems lend themselves to Mohiniyattam adaptation? Isn’t it very difficult to put across the inner subtleties of a poem to an audience?
KK: All poems do not lend themselves to Mohiniyattam adaptation. One has to carefully select the poem. Yes, it is very difficult to convey the real meaning, but if we select a poem accordingly, it is possible.
VK: What do you think the future holds for Mohiniyattam? The most popular classical dance is Bharatanatyam, as it can be seen even on international stages. Compared to this, Mohiniyattam is not as popular.
KK: True. I’d say it’s further below, say, Odissi on the popularity chart. But if I look back, I cannot entirely say that it hasn’t grown. When I started out it was only me, Sugandhi (Kalamandalam Sugandhi), and a couple of others. Now there are plenty of dancers. But there aren’t enough platforms for them to perform. I believe that Kalamandalam, as a deemed university, can do a lot of things in this regard. Now even girls from abroad come to me, wanting to learn from the Kalamandalam school of Mohiniyattam. That makes me happy. But I wish the government would also do its share in opening up venues and promoting Mohiniyattam.
VK: Thank you.