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Tributes to the legendary Mohiniattam dancer Dr Kanak Rele
- Vijay Shanker

March 5, 2023

Eminent Mohiniattam dancer, mentor, choreographer, scholar and dance educationist, Dr Kanak Rele left for her heavenly abode on 22 February 2023, at the age of 85, after a cardiac arrest in Mumbai. She was cremated with state honours at the Vile Parle crematorium. Condolence messages were received from the Governor Ramesh Bais, actress Hema Malini and several other dignitaries. Dr Rele is survived by her husband Yatin Rele, son Rahul, daughter-in-law Uma Rele and grandchildren Vaidehi and Nikunj Rele.

Dr Kanak Rele

She was born on 11 June 1937 in Mumbai in a rich industrialist family of Gujarati Divechas, as the daughter of Madhuri and Shivdas Divecha. As a young girl, Kanak Rele received her formal education in poet Rabindranath Tagore's Shanti Niketan, hence developed a natural inclination for literature and fine arts. As a child she fought polio; after several physio therapy sessions and massage with Ayurvedic oils, she started walking and finally started learning Kathakali from 'Panchali' Karunakara Panikkar, who was introduced to her by Kathakali Guru Raghavan Nair.

Since Mohiniattam is considered the sister style of Kathakali, Kanak Rele was slowly drawn towards Mohiniattam, which was almost extinct, due to the distorted version of the dance form. The term "Mohiniattakari" was used as a word of abuse, hence many dissuaded Kanak Rele from learning Mohiniattam but she was determined to delve deep into the aesthetics, sensitivity and sensuality of the lyrical classical dance of Kerala. In 1972, The Ford Foundation grant enabled her to make a film on the three pioneer mentors of Mohiniattam - Chinnammu Amma, Kunjukutty Amma and Kalyanikutty Amma. After observing and learning from these three mentors, she gradually evolved her own style, based on her theory of body kinetics, wherein the body movements were divided into two main segments; the upper body movements that involves the hands and the graceful sway of the shoulders, which is symbolic of movements of the palm trees of Kerala and the lower body movements that involves the torso and the feet movements that moves accordingly. Kanakben's style was distinct and quite different from the traditional style of Mohiniattam, as taught in the premier institute of Kathakali and Mohiniattam - Kerala Kalamandalam.

She went a step further by adapting the traditional Sopanam Sangeetam in which the tala (rhythm) is also different from the prevalent Carnatic music which is used in Kalamandalam in most musical compositions of Mohiniattam. With the guidance and compositions set by the veteran lyricist and music composer Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, Kanakben introduced her own style of Mohiniattam. Initially, her style of Mohiniattam was not readily accepted and raised many eyebrows. I have had the privilege of witnessing the Kalamandalam style of Mohiniattam and the style propagated and introduced by Kanak Rele. While both the styles maintain the elegance of typical sway and the simultaneous movements of hands and the body, what differentiates is the excessive movements of the sway in Kanakben's style which creates a fine spectacle but not that easy to execute consistently throughout the performance. Moreover, there are differences in the feet movements and footwork as well. Being a brilliant performer, with scintillating abhinaya and a sound knowledge of music and the sastras, Kanakben received overwhelming response for her performances both in India and abroad and gradually her style was applauded internationally and described as 'Kanak's bani'. Surprisingly, her books are available in the library of Kerala Kalamandalam and in recent years she was also the recipient of the prestigious Guru Gopinath Award instituted by the Kerala Government.

Dr Kanak Rele

In Kanakben's words, "After marriage to Yatin Rele, we went abroad for higher studies. I obtained a degree in International Law from Manchester University and returned to Mumbai. I was offered a lucrative job in Air India by the great JRD Tata, but I refused as I wanted to dance. Yatin was initially reluctant as he wanted me to look after my son Rahul and stay at home. I asked him, 'Can you stay away from your brothers and sisters who are so close to you? Then how can I stay away from dance? I want to dance.' At last he was convinced of my passion to dance."

Kanak Rele established Nalanda Dance Research Centre in Mumbai, which is more than 50 years old, the subsidiary being Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, which is affiliated to Mumbai University and students are attaining degrees - bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees - in classical dance which involves comprehensive study of the sastras and the practical knowledge of performances. For Kanakben, "It was not easy to convince vice-chancellor Dr TK Tope for degrees in dance but my persistence made it possible and Nalanda is the only college in Mumbai affiliated to the Mumbai University where students are offered degrees in dance."

Dance dramas choreographed by Kanak Rele and produced by Nalanda Dance Research Centre are Amrut Manthan, Dashavatara, Shodashopachara, Shree Krishna Leela by 50 handicapped children and Ahimsa. Popular dance dramas presented internationally are Santa Vani, Silapaddikaram, Kalyani (based on Tagore's Chandalika), Bhasa's Svapanavasavadattam, Kanchan Mrig and Rukmini Swayamvaram. Choreography to expand the repertoire of Mohiniattam and for women empowerment and social upliftment, strong women personalities from Mahabharata that has widened the repertoire of Mohiniattam are Amba, Draupadi, Gandhari, besides Ekalavya and Nandanar. The books written by her are Mohini Attam - The Lyrical Dance, A Handbook of Dance Terminology and Bhava Niroopana, the latest book being Me and My Mohini Attam. These books have been critically acclaimed internationally. Kanak Rele was closely associated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and actively participated in the dance productions of the Bhavans that interpreted the philosophy of Kulapati K.M. Munshi, the founder of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Kanak Rele is possibly the only Mohiniattam exponent to receive the prestigious Padma Bhushan award (2013), besides several other honours and awards for a lifetime contribution towards the resurrection, promotion and propagation of Mohiniattam.

Dr. Uma Rele, daughter-in-law and principal of Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya reminisces: "I came to Nalanda as a student of Bharatanatyam and today am the principal. It's a long journey; my life changed after I got married to Rahul Rele and Kanakben became my mother-in-law. Every day, we would practically breathe and live dance. I could learn a lot. She will always be my inspiration and I cherish my association with her. Her spirit will always be with us and guide us in every sphere of life."

Dr Sandhya Purecha, Bharatanatyam exponent and chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi said, "Deeply saddened to learn of the demise of creative luminary and revolutionary artiste, Dr Kanakben Rele. She has illuminated the path of artistes with her unparalleled contribution and led a life completely devoted to Indian arts. Truly a huge loss to the world of Indian art. Atma Shanti."

Kanak Rele with Deepak Mazumdar
Kanak Rele with Deepak Mazumdar

Deepak Mazumdar, ardent disciple, renowned Bharatanatyam exponent says, "My association with Kanakben is more than four decades old. I remember when I met her for the first time I was hardly 18 years and was immediately attracted to her charismatic personality, I could see an unusual radiance in her face of the divine mother and whatever I have achieved today, I completely owe it to her. She will always be my inspiration and guiding spirit."

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar is a Kuchipudi and Kathakali exponent, teacher, bilingual journalist, arts critic and actor.

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