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‘Mohiniattam-History, Techniques and Performance’ by Kalamandalam Sathyabhama
- Padma Jayaraj

July 13, 2014

The book ‘Mohiniattam-History, Techniques and Performance’ (Mohiniattam Charithram Sindhadham Prayogam) by Kalamandalam Sathyabhama, co-authored by her daughter Kalamandalam Lathika Mohandas, is a delightful tapestry featuring the story of Mohiniattam, Kerala’s classical dance form traversing through five decades. Into it is woven the story of Kalamandalam founded by Poet Vallathol Narayana Menon in a historical context in the cultural history of modern India. The memoirs of a dancer interlacing through its web in soft vivid colors make it greatly readable. Written in Malayalam, this is invaluable for its texts for practitioners and lovers of Mohiniattam. Kilimangalam Vasudeva Namboodiripad, a long time associate of Sathyabhama in Kalamandalam introduces the book. He praises the book for recording the visually enchanting aspects of the dance as its uniqueness.

Spread in eleven chapters the book begins with a brief history of Mohiniattam. The earliest reference to Mohiniattam is in ‘Balarama Bharatham’ authored by Karthika Thirunal (1723 – 1798). He called it ‘Mohiniyatta natanam.’ He was so impressed by this dance known as Dasiyattam from a neighboring kingdom and at his behest one of his courtiers formatted it as Mohiniattam. Poet Ullur in his ‘History of Kerala Literature’ records Mohiniattam as a prevailing dance form in 18th century. It was during the time of Swathi Thirunal that Mohiniattam gained its classical dimension with features like cholkettu, Jathiswaram, Varnam, Padam, Thillana. The king composed many lyrics in which sringara dominated that suited the lasya aspect of Mohiniattam.  Years later, one of his courtiers Parameswara Bhagavathar who was enchanted by the performance of the wife of Swathi Thirunal, a renowned Mohiniattam dancer, returned home after the king’s demise. It was Parameswara Bhagavathar who taught this dance form to girls in Coimbatore from where it reached different parts of Malabar.

Like many other dance forms of India, Mohiniattam also fell from grace during the British regime because of its Victorian morality. That in those dark days dancers lost their respectability is evident from pieces known as Mookuthi (The Nose-ring), Mothiram (The Ring), Kalabha koothu etc. In 1930, regent Lakshmi Bai banned the performance of Mohiniattam.

In Kalamandalam
Rabindranath Tagore started the Revivalist trend in Shantiniketan in 1901. By 1936 it reached the tip of the subcontinent when the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon and his team of art lovers set up Kerala Kalamandalam on the banks of river Neela in Cheruthuruthy, Kerala. Although the thrust was to revive Kathakali, they decided to encourage other native art forms. One among them was Mohiniattam, a secular dance practiced by women in Kerala who celebrated social events in their households. With the decline of feudalism many of its art forms began to fade from societal memories, for modernity was fascinated by western arts.

After a long search, the poet discovered Kalyani Amma, a reputed dancer in her forties, who had almost forgotten most of what she practised. Yet, she was willing to teach whatever she could recall. After a lot of persuasion, Thankamani joined as her lone student. From 1932 to 1935, it was a one-woman department. And when Thankamani left Kalamandalam after her marriage, the department was closed. Again in 1937, the poet brought a group of 6 students with another teacher Madhavi amma, a woman of sixty. From then on the teaching of Mohiniattam became a group effort supplemented by men with suggestions from the woman roles of Kathakali for fine tuning its aesthetics. The students also learned other dance forms: Manipuri, folk dance like Kaikottikali, and the women-roles of Kathakali for want of adequate teachers. Finally came Chinnammu amma and stayed for 15 years as the teacher of Mohiniattam in Kalamandalam. Her syllabus consisted of a single cholkettu, a padam, two jathiswarams, and a Telugu varnam in its pure form. Soon students began to come even from outside India. She maintained an aestheticism that is slow, simple, and soft in cultured body movements which formed the basis of Kalamandalam style. Vallathol insisted on eliminating the voluptuous elements. He arranged one side of the stage for the orchestra and the singer, and the dance got centre staged.  He persisted in giving classical dimension to its music and percussion. In no time conservative Kerala accepted Mohiniattam as its special dance form like Bharatanatyam of Tamilnadu or Odissi of Odisha.

Sathyabhama, the dancer                                                                                                        
Born in 1937, Sathyabhama started life from humble origins. Even as a young student she was passionate about dance items taught in school and felt drawn to dances in films. So her mother sent her to learn dance under a local dance master. And she performed on stages in and around her village. At 13 she joined Kalamandalam as a part time student and learned both Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam. While in her 8th grade the poet who often came to see her dance offered her scholarship for full time training. From then on she became a resident of Kalamandalam for life. She recalls how her gurus Achutha Variar and Krishnankutti Variar in Kalamandalam used to buy food and clothes for her in those days when life was hard.

The main things taught in Kalamandalam at that time were some items of Mohiniattam (whatever Chinnammu Amma could recall), kaikottikali, a folk piece, snake dance and peacock dance by Rajaratnam, Bharatanatyam dancer from Tamilnadu and Manipuri dance. Training in the female roles in Kathakali was part of the curriculum.

1955 was the silver jubilee year of Kalamandalam. And performing in front of Jawaharlal Nehru on the occasion was the first memorable event in Sathyabhama’s student days. The next major event was her first foreign trip. The poet took his team to Malaysia and Singapore. It was a milestone in her vocation. There she performed Mohiniattam, Bharatanatyam and women-centered Kathakali pieces. The dancers sang for each other during the performance. Back from the foreign trip, the poet started courses for violin and mridangam in the institution. It was a fruitful 6 years for Sathyabhama as she learned Mohiniattam, Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and folk dances with music and songs supplementing and complementing each one. After completing her course she joined Kalamandalam as a junior dance teacher. Initially she taught Bharatanatyam and soon switched over to train students in Mohiniattam.

Her stint in Kalamandalam saw the evolution of Mohiniattam with the seal of Kalamandalam style. Her career and achievements in Kalamandalam coincided with its growth as a premier institution for traditional classical art forms with a stamp of its own. Poet Vallathol at the helm of a team of artist-teachers strived hard to evolve fading art forms into unique, systematized formats with the imprint of Kalamandalam. Each branch came up as a result of group effort of experts in different fields. As we read, a series of pen pictures zoom in and out, documenting the growth of an institution, with many departments and unique compositions. 

At the personal level, the young artist encouraged by the poet, helped by masters in other branches, gained confidence as a teacher and composer. In Kalamandalam itself, she came across her partner Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair, well versed in other art forms, who enriched her expertise. Later, her own daughter joined Kalamandalam. Awards followed as Kalamandalam rose as an institution of excellence.

Kalari Padangal is an exclusive chapter that exhausts the techniques of Mohiniattam as it is taught in Kalamandalam starting from salutations, physical training to the minutiae of choreography. We get an account of the mythical origin of dramaturgy by the sage Bharata;  detailed description of abhinaya; physical and facial expressions with all nuances, both for the tandava and lasya styles;  use of songs and verses for narration etc. It speaks of how all these are encompassed in harmony to create the rasanubhava, the quintessence of Indian aestheticism. Hand gestures are taken from Hasthalakshana Deepika. All these have evolved in the course of years with the signature of Kalamandalam based on the classical texts of ancient times. Pictures cataloguing nava rasas, hand gestures and karanas (poses) are another feature of the book.

A major part of the book deals with the aspect of performance or presentation. How adavus are linked in dance format and how charis are used to fill in the gap between pallavi, anupallavi, charanam, how facial expressions are incorporated for dramatizing using mudras, body movements and poses simultaneously. Mohiniattam emerges as a dance drama predominantly in lasya style where the different parts of the body plays its own role. Of the different rasas, Mohiniattam projects mainly sringara, karuna, vatsalya and bhakti. The author had choreographed different aspects of sringara since Mohiniattam usually portrays virahothkandita nayika, the heroine waiting for her lover.

The book also gives an account of how the costume of Mohiniattam evolved in Kalamandalam, mainly the contribution of the author herself. She designed the costume in tune with the taste, colour preference, traditional dress code and ornaments that gives the stamp of Kerala. The hair style also is distinct reminding one of Ravi Varma paintings.

The presentation of cholkettu, the first item in a Mohiniattam dance composition and the texts of some main items with detailed choreography to translate them for staging a performance is a unique feature that helps a student of this dance form. Sathyabhama acknowledges her debt to Padmanabhan Nair, her late husband, the Kathakali maestro in adopting facial expressions for Mohiniattam. The author’s choreography of the many items formed the syllabus of Mohiniattam. A career that spanned 36 years saw Sathyabhama’s contribution of eleven major Mohiniattam compositions that forms the classical text of this Kerala dance form: choreography, music, orchestra, costume. Meanwhile Kalamandalam style of Bharatanatyam also was evolving under an able team. The institution grew into its premier status which was a parallel to the career of Sathyabama from her student days to a period beginning as a junior teacher for dance, forming the department of Mohiniattam, and heading Kalamandalam as its principal until her retirement in 1993.

The Mohiniattam dancer on the cover invites the reader. The photographs of personalities starting from poet Vallathol enhance the pen pictures in the book. Yet, one misses the pictures of Kalamandalam, the institution that is a landmark in the skyline of cultural Kerala. On the whole, here is a book that is good enough for one’s home library as well as for any other libraries where books in Malayalam is read.

Mohiniyattam Charithram Sindhadham Prayogam costs around Rs.200 and is published by Mathrubhumi Books.

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer on the arts and travel. She is a regular contributor to

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