Mohiniyattam is the classical dance form of Kerala. It literally translates as 'Mohini' a divine enchantress, and attam means dance, or more precisely play. But before we go deeper into it, what is really important to remember is Mohini is a divine enchantress on a divine mission. The reason why Vishnu had to take this divine, mesmerizing female form was—there are many different layers of meaning that one can go into—but the simple meaning is to lure evil to its own annihilation—like you have several episodes describing Bhasmaramohini and all that. But at a more deeper level, it would mean that the role of Mohini is to lure a person from lust to higher consciousness. That would be the deepest level of interpretation of the role of Mohini. Because she is not an ordinary woman, she is not out just to seduce. There is a divinity about her. That is something very important for a Mohiniyattam practitioner to understand. I think this is the most important aspect of the dance form. That she is not just a seductress, that she has a certain sacred and divine quality about her. In keeping with the name of the dance form, it is rooted in the feminine spirit. To me this dance form has mirrored all the principles of femininity and therefore, even though it originated in temple like many of India’s dance traditions, it has a certain contemporary relevance. To me it has always prodded me to think about what does it mean to be a woman today. What does femininity mean to us in the society? Is it only physical beauty? Or does it also mean beauty with intelligence? That has something that really inspired me to look very deeply into the dance form, and to go beyond its history, technique, culture and all of that. I think it is very necessary to look into the dance form and its relevance in our society and life today.
The dance that I did just now is from Ashtapati. It is one of the most important items in Mohiniyattam repertoire and was introduced by my mother and guru Bharati Shivaji 40 years ago when she embarked on her journey of reconstruction and revival of Mohiniyattam. She was inspired to create this item. Kerala has had a long tradition of ashtapatis being rendered in temples, especially in the Guruvayur temple for several centuries. So it was logical to incorporate it as an integral part of Mohiniyattam repertoire. It is also important as it also highlights the distinct music system of sopana sangeetham of Kerala. Even today it is part of the kottipadi seva when the doors of the Guruvayur sanctorum are opened and closed to the sound of idaykka and sopana sangeetham. Ashtapatis are rendered in a very distinct style of Kerala known as sopana, unique to Kerala. This item highlights the technique of Mohiniyattam. The movements are very graceful, but are deceptively so. They might look simple but they are not. They involve a lot of strength. If you talk about the technique of Mohiniyattam it would not be far-fetched or an exaggeration to say that kalaripayattu is the parent art form of Mohiniyattam in terms of technique—kalaripayattu, the 2000-year old martial art form of Kerala. There is a deep connect between kalaripayattu and the technique of Mohiniyattam. The movements are internal as opposite to being external. For e.g. it is not the hand that moves but the inside circle. How do you create the circle from inside? It is not easy to understand or do that. This is also unique to Kerala. In terms of abhinaya, I would say Kutiyattam is its other parent art form as it is so to the other dance forms in Kerala. What my mother did was, she really enriched the technique of the dance form, besides abhinaya, the technique was highlighted. A lot was created, added and enhanced. Through her it came to be known outside Kerala. Probably she was singularly responsible for putting it on the global map. It greatly inspired me to see her passion and commitment. What I probably did was it inspired me to push its boundaries and look further. And I thought the idiom of Mohiniyattam is so rich that it could lend itself to variety of themes. And so one of my earlier productions is Unniyarcha from Vadukkum Pattukakal (folk songs of North Kerala). That is still very close to my heart. And celebrating the beautiful Vadukkum Pattukal of North Malabar. The story of a real woman called Unniyarcha who lived in Vadakara 350 years ago. The entire production is based on kalaripayattu. I wanted to explore the new rasas and highlight the technique of the dance forms. To me my all productions speak about very contemporary themes. Because I think classical arts have to speak to us. It cannot be disconnected from our lives. It cannot survive otherwise. It is not meant to be disconnected. The dance form has influenced me so much as a person, as a woman, and all they kind of merge and become one. There is no separation, there shouldn’t be. There are some very interesting aspects of this dance forms. The technique really enables the dancer to free herself. for example, (demonstrating a step). The dance allows the dancer to let go. That is what I love about the dance. It compels the dancer to let go, free of yourself. The other important aspect of the dance is that the emphasis is more on the process of dancing than the destination. By that what I mean is we are interested not just in the completion of a step, but more in how are we going to reach there. I am interested in the how. In the process. I am not interested in that final pose. How is my body moving? How did I get there (in the final pose)? That to me is one of the most beautiful aspect of this dance form and therefore, that much more demanding. We are not in a hurry to get to the destination.
This ashtapati has been choreographed by my mother and guru Bharati Shivaji. It is very beautiful. It describes Radha and her sakhi (female friend) who are wandering in the forest, and—the sakhi plays an important role in the Gita Govindam—the sakhi says, 'Oh look, look at Krishna over there. He is with beautiful women. Radha, look! What a sight that is!' Radha looks and naturally she is very upset. She is very sad to see Krishna with the other gopis. Krishna’s entire body is blue in colour. There is the lovely fragrance of sandalwood paste. The fragrance of sandalwood paste emanates from his whole body. He wraps around him this pitambara made of yellow silken cloth and he looks so handsome and mesmerizing. He is dancing with all the beautiful gopis. He dances in complete abandon—this is what I mean by total play. This is very interesting. Remember I mentioned earlier that Mohiniyattam is attam or play. This is reminiscent of Krishna’a play with gopis. It is the same play. So it is very interesting. 'When Krishna dances, his earrings also dance with him. So amazing. Look at that sight!' The sakhi is describing this whole scene to Radha and in the process is telling the audience about the rasleela. And the sakhi is saying, 'Look, Radha, Krishna is with so many women, I cannot stop counting. He is really something. My god! Look at that!' And then I go on to do the rasleela. This is the highlight of the whole item.
(Demonstrating the navarasas as emoted in Mohiniyattam)