A captivating performance by Sunanda Nair
- Rita Winters

August 5, 2011

I witnessed Sunanda Nair performing Mohiniattam, the graceful flowing dance of Kerala, at the Jewish Community Center, Houston on June 25, 2011.  Recognized as one of India’s leading exponents of Mohiniattam, she is the pinnacle of perfection, from her stunning beauty to her graceful and precise execution and effective abhinaya.

The five musicians who accompany Sunanda take their place onstage, and the magic begins.  Arun Gopinath (vocal artist), Kiran Gopinath (mridangam), Raman Kalyan (flautist), Mahesh Iyer (violinist), and Anand (edakka) together invoke enchantment.  Their level of performance, camaraderie and harmony are that of veteran artistes.  When I heard their prelude to Sunanda’s entrance, I knew this evening would be extraordinary. 

When the music begins and Sunanda glides onto the stage, her appearance takes my breath away.  She emulates the fiery splendor of India’s culture, and the unparalleled graceful expression of devotion to God through the arts.  If you take her costume on its own – with all its gold, silk and gemstone – it might seem ostentatious on a mere mortal. 

The magic begins when Sunanda invokes Lord Ganesha, remover of all obstacles, in the dance entitled Ananda Ganapathi.  In this dance, she humbly asks for the Lord’s blessing for the success of this performance.  The blessing sought is not only for herself but for her audience to feel exhilarated.  The charm of her subtle eyebrow movements, the hallmark head wobble, her intricate hastas and graceful swaying of her body emulate the lasya of Ganesha’s mother Parvathi.  Sunanda’s subtle eye movements turn to a fierce gaze as she moves to tie a tiger skin around her waist and take a majestic pose, and we recognize Shiva, Ganesha’s father.  She then displays the wonder of a devotee witnessing the jubilant dance of Ganesha, and the spell has been cast.  The audience has become the devotee, blessed by dance and music. 

The next item Sunanda presented was a composition of the Maharaja of Travancore, Swathi Tirunal’s  “Chaliye Kunjan Mo.” Here, as the heroine inviting Lord Krishna to an arbor on the banks of the river Yamuna, Sunanda takes our hand and gently invites us to a world of lush and lyrical beauty.  In her dance, she embodies the resplendent landscape of Kerala, the birthplace of Mohiniattam.  With delicate and elongated red-tipped fingers, she gently reaches for Krishna’s irresistible yet elusive hand.  If her gentle grasp could not persuade him, surely her magnetic gaze could.  She shyly glances from her beloved to the arbor – “see how lovely it is there, come with me.”  How can he resist such charm?  If that is not enough to entice him, she then describes the allure of the river bank, the call of the cuckoo, and the scent of flowers in the cool breeze (which the bees cannot resist, so why should he?).  She glides and dips across the stage, illustrating the boundless flow of devotion, as deep and powerful as Yamuna itself. The subtle abhinaya and the intricate nuances she brought out was a delight to watch.

In “Oru Magal,” an aham poem in classic ancient Tamil language depicting a delightful facet of life which existed then and still exists today, describes a young lady eloping with the man of her choice against parental wish. In this piece, a mother says, “I’ve but one child - my darling, who has eloped with that proud warrior who came from across the high mountains.” When the neighbors obviously enjoying her discomfiture, advice her to be calm, she bursts out, “Oh! Wise people; my heart is scorched and you ask me to keep calm?” Sunanda portrays the anguished mother.  Mother wakes to find her child missing, and her panic increases as she scours her neighborhood in search of her.  Instead of finding assistance or at least solace from her neighbors for her plight, she is met with contempt and ridicule.  Sunanda’s  cornucopia of facial expressions range from a mother who is concerned, to alarmed, to angry, and finally devastated.  Sunanda’s background in Kathakali shows in her complex facial movements, which contort flawlessly as she ripples gracefully across the stage. Her beautiful face becomes a battleground ravaged by emotion. What was smooth and elegant has become pockmarked with anguish and despair.  Her outrage flawlessly illustrates the protective drive of a mother.  The callous neighbors who mock her for not keeping a better eye on her child bring her to (real) tears.  Could she be any more alone?   Her range of emotion and expression strikes at the heart of every parent in the audience.

Ashta Nayika is a dance about the eight conditions or moods of love. Vasakkasajja is the heroine who dresses up for her Lord.  Here, Sunanda adorns her home with fragrant blossoms, and herself in all her finery as she joyously awaits the return of her beloved. Virahotkhandita is about a sorrowful heroine pining for her beloved.  Her dejection is that of a woman who longs to be reunited with someone who is preoccupied.  Svadhinabhartruka is a heroine who has her Lord under her subjugation.  Of all eight characters, this was Sunanda’s coup de grace.  Her piquant way of keeping her Lord waiting was sassiness par excellence.  Her Lord knocks, and she sits playfully humming a tune to herself.  The more he knocks, the slower she is to answer the door.  She has all the time in the world because she is in complete control.   I found myself laughing out loud at how playfully one can be so audacious.     Kalahantarita, a quarrelsome heroine, refuses the kind gestures of her beloved.  She is her own worst enemy, and her capriciousness costs her the affections of her Lord.  Khandita, however, is justified in her rage against her beloved, as he has spent the evening with someone else.  Whatever excuses her beloved may have, she will have none of it.  And so we move to Vipralabdha, a cheated heroine.  In her anguish, she removes her ornaments and throws them away, as she wants nothing to remind her of her betrayer.  The Lord has been called away on duty.  The Proshitabhartruka nayika is seen anxiously waiting for him on the day he is set to return.  No matter how often she looks through the curtain for his familiar form to appear, he does not show up.  She is inconsolable.  Abhisarika, the shameless heroine, ignores all duty and social customs to meet her beloved.  She braves the dangers of the forest, and the danger of losing her reputation and all that entails, in order to reunite with her Lord.  All eight moods are depicted impeccably by Sunanda.

Sunanda takes a traditional lullaby of Irayiman Thampi, “Omana Thingal,” to portray a mother’s adoration for her child.  With delicate movement and charming expression, she compares her child’s beauty to that of the moon’s glowing face, and the moon’s appeal is found lacking.  His soft, chubby cheeks are filled with honey, and there’s no lotus flower softer or more beautiful than he.  The delight she finds in her child’s voice (a koel’s singing can’t compete), his swift steps more appealing than a peacock’s dance, and even his Krishna-like pranks of eating mud are endearing.  Every mother in the audience knows how it feels to believe that her baby is the most exquisite creature ever created.  Her tears of love are our tears.

To complete the performance, Sunanda treats us to Ashtapadi.  Ashtapadi is a poem from the Gita Govinda, which is about Radha’s fantasies of Krishna.  Dreaming of happier times with her beloved, she longs to be reunited with him.  This poem is also about the sting of jealousy.  Radha is aware that Krishna has many flirtations and is in high demand by the other gopis.  Embodying Radha, Sunanda shows how bittersweet dreams can be and how painful jealousy is.  Her fantasies are her only comfort as she grapples with anger and jealousy.  Radha implores her friend to bring Krishna to her before her heart breaks.

The evening was over far too soon.  Her dance is a gift, a blessing and an inspiration.  She lives up to the Sanskrit meaning of her name – One who is very pleasing or delightful.

Rita Winters is a dance enthusiast and student of classical Indian dance.