- Venugopal SK
November 3, 2020
My tributes to some of the finest gems in the world of Mohiniattam practitioners who made their mark with their typical style and identities, yet contributing substantially towards developing the dance form to the present level of acceptance worldwide. Earlier in one of my previous articles, I shared my experience of going through a wonderful virtual journey through the most enchanting dance form of Mohiniattam. This was possible during the past 6 months or so, when I had lot of time at my disposal to explore and find out more about the dance form I love the most.
As a sequel I would now like to start a small series of write ups on a few wonderful personalities I came across during this sojourn. It's purely to satisfy my own inner self that I am writing this series and it covers only my views and observations as a tribute to these fine artistes. They are some of the veterans in the field of Mohiniattam, who have given their life and times to learn, practice, innovate and propagate the dance form to their best of abilities. I am not going by any specific order based on seniority or reputation, but by purely following my instincts.
Let me begin with a person who I had the opportunity to meet recently to know more about her journey in Mohiniattam. It was not a formal interview but a friendly chat over a cup of tea, thanks to her gracious invitation to drop in at her place on my way to Thrissur by road. A friendly elderly couple awaited me at their residence in Vidya Nagar, near Cochin University campus - Kalamandalam Sugandhi and her husband K.R. Damodara Prabhu. They were both hospitable and friendly, thereby making me feel that I knew them from ages. Let me briefly narrate what I gathered from these conversations as also from some follow up chats, which I feel would be beneficial for those who would like to know the great artiste from close quarters.
Born at a village called Valamangalam in Thuravur, Aleppey district, in the year 1950, she was blessed with talent in both music and dance by birth. Her father G. Sreenivasa Kamath and mother Anandhi Kamath encouraged her to pursue her talent from the very young age of 5. Her mother was a well-known writer in Konkani Language. Her first Guru in dance was Sathi Devi, Chammanad and then Surendranath. Later she joined Kerala Kalamandalam from where she attained direction and purpose of her mission in life. Her teachers in Kalamandalam were Chandrika Menon, A.R.R. Bhaskar, Sathyabhama, and Sukumari Narendra Menon in music.
Nurtured by relentless pursuit of excellence and urge for creative experimentation, she pursued her higher studies under Guru Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma, Kalamandalam Sathyabhama and Vedantham Prahlada Sharma. She also had the opportunity to associate with Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam in her research work, which helped her in tracing the origin of her dance form in Natyasastra. She did extensive research on the influence of Natyasastra in contemporary Mohiniattam as well as the importance of Sathvikabhinaya and lasya bhava in the dance form. She translated Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam's Tamil book 'Bharata Kalai Kotpadu' into Malayalam titled 'Bharata Kala Lakshanam.' Her book on use of Hastha mudras in Mohiniattam, with illustrations is in the final stages of completion before release. The name of the book is 'Hastaratnakaram'. She has also authored a book in Konkini language, her mother tongue, titled 'Natyavedu-Panchovo Vedu,' which underlines the influence of Natyasastra in all dance forms. She also did a study on the ritualistic music traditions in Kerala temples and choreographed many Mohiniattam items with Sopana Sangeetham as accompaniment.
Her academic achievements include Diploma in Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam from Kerala Kalamandalam, B.A in Malayalam from University of Calicut, M.A in Mohiniattam from Kerala Kalamandalam. She is pursuing PhD from Sastra University, Thanjavur, on Mohiniattam and Natyasastra.
She had a long stint as a faculty member at F.A.C.T Fine Arts wing for over 32 years. Her contributions towards propagating and popularizing Mohiniattam and elevating its status as a dance form to a level at par or even more acceptable to the fraternity of dance lovers all over the globe, is worth mentioning. She has been judiciously innovative and original in her choreography without shifting drastically away from basic foundation of tradition and practices as laid down by her great Gurus and her alma mater. Her repertoire is vast and distinctive with a 'Sugandhi' touch in all compositions including the ones penned by her and choreographed with original music composed by her. She has earned her name as one of the top-notch teachers in the field with disciples across Kerala, India and abroad. She is one teacher who allows her disciples to explore newer terrains rather than forcing them getting stuck with only what they learned from her. In fact, this is what she did in her life and she always encourages her students to think for themselves and choreograph differently and enjoy their work. A very rare phenomenon among teachers who usually do not like their students to drift away from one particular style. Similarly, she respects and names her Gurus with reverence by always narrating their influence in her journey in any forum without fear of being criticized by few with vested interest. There is unfortunately a trend among the dancers not to acknowledge anyone other than from their alma mater.
Her list of disciples includes famous names like Dr. Neena Prasad, Gopika Varma, Pallavi Krishnan, Swetha Mangalath, Priya Nair and of course her daughter Nanditha Prabhu who have all made a name for themselves. There are many more students who still line up to avail of the great opportunity to learn from her and she obliges them even at this age without hesitation. Her holistic approach is refreshingly different from normal training that a teacher gives to a student. Her objective is always to develop each student into a responsible, energetic, and a passionate human being apart from shaping them to be a good dancer.
Awards and honors have come her way as recognition for her contributions, but I personally feel, she deserves a lot more. Some of the awards she has been honored with are: Kalaratna award from Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy (2012), Kendra Sangeet Natak Academy Award (2004), Dr.T.M.A Pai Foundation Award (2003), Senior Fellowship from Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India (2003), Kerala Kalamandalam Award (1999), Pundareenath Bhuvanendra Puraskar from Kerala Konkini Sahithya Academy (1997), Award from Tapasya Sahithya Vedi and New Delhi Samskrita Bharati (1997), Senior Fellowship from Human Resource Development Ministry, Govt of India (1990), ITC Golden Greats Award (1990), Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy Award (1985). She is presently working as Dean in Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University.
Kalamandalam Sugandhi is blessed with two children - daughter Dr. Nanditha Prabhu, who is the founder of Mythri Centre for Arts, Chennai, and son Col. Naveen D Prabhu who is serving the Indian Army at Jaipur, Rajasthan.
With innumerable original choreographies such as Varnams, Keerthanams, Padams, Slokas, and even dance dramas, she has an illustrious record as a performer, teacher, choreographer, and above all as a wonderful human being with an ever smiling face which never transmits bitterness even at highest level of provocation. I take a bow before this legend for what she is. Towards the end of our brief meeting, she did mention about a dream of hers. She says she is not happy and fully content with all that she has done so far and that she still dreams of perfecting the dance form Mohiniattam by more fine tuning and presenting it to the dance lovers in all its glory as conceived by her. This she believes will be possible through a student who volunteers to receive that training at some point in time. I wish her all the best and sincerely hope that she will fulfill that dream also very soon.
Venugopal S.K is a businessman in the field of Engineering projects, a singer, composer, accredited artiste in Light Music at All India Radio, auditioned and graded member of panel of speakers in Films Division of India, associated with Mohiniattam for over 4 decades as accompanying musician and music composer.
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