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An odyssey through the world of Mohiniattam
- Venugopal S.K

September 9, 2020

The most positive side of this dreaded Covid pandemic period was that it gave us all a lot of time to do things which we would have loved to do otherwise and were unable to, because of busy schedules. Music and dance being my passion and being a person familiar with Facebook, I decided to choose and follow some wonderful performances that were posted in FB. I started writing my views on those performances and thereby came in contact with Dr. Sunanda Nair, who was a known celebrity from Mumbai, my 'Karmabhoomi'. Then I became member of her FB group called 'Mohini Attam- The Lyrical Dance'. Recognized as one of the foremost Mohiniattam performers in the country today, with her masterly style and grace, I think her inclusive approach of getting in artistes of different styles and schools into this group was a novel idea which has to be appreciated. Many artists joined this group through her goodwill and started uploading their work.

I would like to mention here some of the noteworthy uploads which gave out a lot of informative inputs about the dance form and its practitioners. The young and upcoming Mohiniattam artiste Malavika Menon from Bangalore started a series called 'Lasya Mukharika' which covered a wide spectrum of Mohiniattam teachers, with a beautiful format of interactions through informal chats. Starting with Guru Dr. Kanak Rele, she interviewed some senior most teachers namely gurus Bharati Shivaji , Sreedevi Rajan, Kala Vijayan, Kalamandalam Sugandhi, Nirmala Panicker , Kalamandalam Kshemavathi, Kalamandalam Hymavathy, Dr. Deepthi Omcheri Bhalla, Kalamandalam Saraswathi, Kalamandalam Vimala Menon, Kalamandalam Chandrika….and then the next generation teachers starting from Dr. Sunanda Nair, Gopika Varma, Smitha Rajan, Pallavi Krishnan, Dr. Neena Prasad, Jayaprabha Menon, Dr. Methil Devika, and Vinitha Nedungadi. After the series was over, I had opportunity to watch a couple of videos of Malavika's performances and I must say she is a great prospect for the future. The humility with which she conducted herself while interviewing the greats of the field was noteworthy. With very limited interventions only when required she allowed free flow of valuable information coming from the senior gurus and artistes.

Through these interactions, a lot of hitherto unknown facts emerged and that made me curious to get into the history of this dance form and try to understand the evolution of the dance form assimilating the information gathered and also by reading some available materials. Some others followed suit but the formats did not attract me much. The biggest take away from this series was that I came in contact with some of the very senior gurus like the daughter of the doyen of Mohiniattam (most of us know her as Mother of Mohiniattam), late Kalamandalam Kalyanikkutty Amma's daughter Kala Vijayan, as also Kalamandalam Sugandhi, and Nirmala Panicker. Speaking with them itself was a learning experience. It was heartwarming to know about the journey they undertook with guidance of their gurus, and how they expanded their knowledge base by researching further and developing their own styles and compositions.

Another great revelation that occurred during this pandemic period was that I came to know of a young artiste by name Sandra Pisharody. She had posted a small video as tribute to her Guru Nirmala Panicker on Guru Poornima day. It was such a combination of supreme talent, technical perfection and all-pervading grace in correct measure. On searching her other videos that were available on YouTube, I realized that she is already a recognized Mohiniattam performer in her own rights. I am glad that the future of this dance form is going to be even brighter in coming years with artistes like Sandra around.

Guru Kala Vijayan came up with a series of classes on Mohiniattam, which was informative and interesting. The classes still continue and I am sure discerning students of Mohiniattam can learn a lot from this series. The visual demonstration of the subjects covered, makes it even more interesting. Dhanya Ajith, her daughter-in-law, an amazing dancer herself, provides this demo support beautifully.

Dr. Sunanda Nair

In the meantime, Kanak Festival organized by Dr. Sunanda Nair happened, which was another great initiative with artistes from different styles of Mohiniattam showcased before the online audience. Sunanda Nair has been conducting this festival for past few years in Mumbai as a tribute to her Guru Dr. Kanak Rele and this time instead of dropping the festival she opted for online presentation which was well appreciated by the dance fraternity. The open minded invitation of artistes from alma mater of Kerala Kalamandalam, Sree Sankara University, RLV Academy, was praiseworthy. Of course, a student from her own institution Sunanda's Performing Art Centre (SPARC) also participated in the festival.

Most recently, Gowri Creations under the stewardship of Dinesh Koduvayur started a live series of talks on Mohiniattam (10 days) followed by Mohiniattam festival again for 10 days. It all started with a talk by Guru Kalamandalam Sugandhi, who advocated for a 'Pramana Samhitha' for Mohiniattam. I fully endorse her views as unmindful changes and modifications which can happen to the dance form may ultimately destroy the basic classical nature of Mohiniattam. It's always better for all those senior gurus to sit and deliberate and come to an understanding about how far those changes can happen and whether we can have a documented agreement culminating in what Guru Sugandhi called 'Pramana Samhitha'. There were many interesting talks in this series with Dr. Sunanda Nair, Kalamandalam Kshemavathi, Nirmala Panicker and many others participating live. This was followed by 10 live performances of Mohiniattam. There were some brilliant performances I would say but due to space constraint I would not elaborate on each performance. Such efforts from organizations like Gowri Creations need to be appreciated and applauded.

Sandra Pisharody

I have also been watching a new series under the name 'Sampradaya'. Two performances were uploaded live so far by the organization spearheaded by a notable Mohiniattam exponent Bhairavi Nedungadi. The first performance was of Sandra Pisharody and it was another fabulous visual magic, ultimate in beauty and quality. The next was Malavika Menon who gave a masterly performance with impeccable movements and expressions. The format of the series is very well thought out. It not only showcases the dancing skills of the artistes but also provides an insight into their learning processes and experiences through an interaction soon after the dance. By doing this not only the artiste but also the Guru who trained them gets a proper exposure. I compliment the organizer for this vision. The series still continues.

Malavika Menon

To sum up my Covid time FB experience of viewing Mohiniattam, I would like to share a serious thought. If we are genuine lovers of this dance form, it's high time that we stop staying disintegrated by calling ourselves followers of 'A' style or 'B' style and ridiculing one another even though not in open. In my view, each style or 'Bani' so far in view has its own beauty. Let's remember each of these styles has been developed or built on a foundation that was laid by great gurus of Kerala be it Korattikara Krishna Panicker, Kalyani Amma, Kalyanikutty Amma or Chinnammu Amma. Let's not try to wipe out history of a certain period just to project achievements of one guru out of many. Let's remember all gurus.

Kalamandalam Sathyabhama was also a disciple of Kalyanikutty Amma which many present day graduates of Kalamandalam are not aware of. I saw the documentary evidence was in display a few days back. Dr.Kanak Rele being a non-Malayali did so much for this art form which must be remembered. Gurus Sreedevi Rajan, Kala Vijayan, Nirmala Panicker, Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, Kalamandalam Sugandhi, Kalamandalam Leelamma, a few names that comes to my mind straight away, have all done their bit promoting this dance form. There are many more elderly gurus as well as those in the next generation like Dr. Deepthi Omcheri Bhalla, Dr. Neena Prasad, Dr. Sunanda Nair, Dr. Methil Devika, Gopika Varma and many others who have all contributed their bit in popularizing this beautiful dance form. Let's first show the Guruthwam of respecting our elders who have given their lives for this dance form.

Mohiniattam in its present form was developed, nurtured, nourished and beautified by those who relentlessly worked to bring this dance form before us in the present format. God bless all those living gurus and those who practice this lovely dance form in their efforts to make it greater.

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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