The origin, the legends and a Boon
The origins of Mohiniattam, legend says, can be traced back to Lord Vishnu who took the form of an enchantress on certain occasions to intervene on behalf of the righteous who were suffering adversity.
As one story goes, it happened first when the milky ocean was churned by the devas and asuras. When amrit, the elixir, emerged, the latter attempted to snatch it. However, Vishnu came to the rescue in the form of Mohini, a seductress, and cast a spell of enchantment on the asuras. Stupefied by her alluring charm the asuras lost their senses and the devas carried away the elixir.
In another legend, Lord Vishnu assumed the form of Mohini to rescue Lord Shiva who had become the victim of a boon that he himself had bestowed on the demon King Bhasmasura. Apparently, Shiva had given him the power to turn to ashes anyone on whose head he placed his palm. He was now in hot pursuit of his benefactor in order to annihilate him.
Lord Shiva appealed to Vishnu for help, who, in the form of Mohini, appeared before the demon and enticed him with her irresistibly seductive ways. Enchanted by her beauty and dance, the demon king began imitating her gestures and ended up placing his hands on his own head. This evidently was his undoing.
Whatever be the origin of this captivating dance, its entrancing grace makes it distinctively different from others. In its present form, Mohiniattam is hardly two hundred years old.
It has undergone, like many other traditional dance forms of India, stylistic changes before it assumed its present stage. Traditions are never stagnant; they evolve with time, responding to aesthetic concepts and social tastes of a changing audience.
Living history of the art’s rescue
It was the Kottara Sampradaya, Court or Darbar tradition that marked an important step in the transition of this fascinating style. In the late 18th century Kartika Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore, a great scholar and patron of Kathakali and other art forms, engaged court musicians to pick up the threads of the female dances existing in different corners of the region and rejuvenate them.
This marked the beginning of the reformation of Mohiniattam, which gained full momentum during the time of his successor Maharaja Swati Thirunal, the illustrious composer and patron of arts and artists. He engaged his court dancers and Nattuvanars (the teachers who played the cymbals), to embellish the existing style of Mohiniattam with suitable lasya (graceful) elements from Kathakali, Kaikottikali and other popular performing arts of Kerala.
A repertoire, which included Chollukettu, Padam Padavarnam and Thillana was composed, with a substantial portion being contributed by Swati Thirunal himself.Much more emphasis was given to abhinaya (histrionic expressions) and bhava (emotive expressions) than to the rhythmic aspects of dance.
The untimely demise of the Maharaja resulted in drying up of royal patronage, which led to the decline of the art and dancers resorting to distortions and dilutions of the form, content to suit social needs and expectations. In the process, the music too lost its distinct traditional flavour.
A period of bleakness followed until Mahakavi Vallatol, the great poet and patron of Kathakali and Mukunda raja, took up the challenge of reforming and promoting Mohiniattam through the Kerala Kala Mandalam, the Academy of Kerala dances, established in 1930.
Mahakavi provided the academic dignity of a distinct classical solo style to the form. He was able to garner the support of a few teachers like Guru Krishna Panikkar who still preserved the genuine features of the art. He also identified and persuaded promising students to learn at the institution.
Some of the earliest dancers were Smt. Kalyani Amma, Chinnamuamma, Thankamani Gopinath, and my guru Kalamandalam Kalyani Kutty Amma, all of who became well-known exponents of Mohiniattam during the period of renaissance.
The form got a new lease of life with a new repertoire, style, costume and accompanying instruments. Guru Krishna Panikkar, though he was a man, reintroduced the characteristic elements of Mohiniattam- graceful, swaying movements, soft footwork, with no abrupt jerks or leaps ideally suitable for women.
Emphasis was placed more on lyrical expressions than rhythmic concerns. The repertoire was enriched with lively compositions like Pandattom and Tinkallum Kadirolium. Items like Kalabha Kootu, Pullaangi (a distorted version of phool angi) and Khayaalu nrityam, which were earlier introduced to entertain the public but lacked dignity and aesthetic appeal, were dropped.
Subtle and restrained depictions of emotive expressions and body movements, which were swaying, undulating yet controlled became the inherent feature of Mohiniattam.
Even today Nritya continues to be dominated by adavus (basic dance units), which have chuzzippus (circular or curvy movements) and andolikams (oscillating movements).The foot movements are rendered softly and have been broadly classified into Sarpa Paadam (snake like movement), Mayura Paadam (peacock’s gait), Hamsa Paadam (swan’s gait), Manduka Padam (frog’s leap) and Kukuda Paadam (cock’s gait).
The foot movements are rendered softly and have been broadly classified into Sarpa Paadam (snake like movement), Mayura Paadam (peacock’s gait), Hamsa Paadam (swan’s gait), Manduka Padam (frog’s leap) and Kukuda Paadam (cock’s gait).
The hand hastas (gestures) though adopted from Hastalakshana Deepika, a text followed by Kathakali, differ in their presentation. A few hastas are also borrowed from Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpana, the two important texts followed by other classical dances. The gestures and facial expressions lean more towards the natural and realistic (laukika or gramya) than dramatic or conventional (natya). Changes have also been made with regard to costume and hairstyle. The hair pleated behind the head is now tied on one side of the head into a bun adorned with white flowers.
The costume of white with a gold brocaded border and gold jewellery is simple, reflecting the lifestyle of the people of Kerala. Instruments like shankhom, tutti, mukhaveena, cymbals, toppi maddalam have been replaced by the veena, violin, flute, cymbals, edaikka and mridangam.
Today, Mohiniattam continues to evolve through innovation and experimentation, retaining its essential spirit of seductive grace, garnering audiences everywhere, with efforts of a few dedicated artistes and cultural institutions.
However, there is still much more to explore, discover and draw from the hidden treasures of other traditional forms of Kerala, keeping it dynamic and alive – classical in its grandeur and style.
Writer- Mohiniattam Deepti Omchery Bhalla Photographs- Avinash Pasricha Copy Editor- Ankita Badoni