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Dr. Kanak Rele: I gave Mohiniattam a new respectability
- Vijay Shankar

May 28, 2022

Renowned Mohiniattam exponent, dance educationist and founder-director of Nalanda Dance Research Centre, Dr. Kanak Rele, released her latest book 'Me and My Mohiniattam' in the presence of celebrated actress, dancer and MP, Hema Malini, and other dignitaries at Kanak Sabha, Nalanda Dance Research Centre, Mumbai on 7th May.

Hema Malini, Dr.Uma Rele and Dr. Kanak Rele
Hema Malini, Dr.Uma Rele and Dr. Kanak Rele

Dr. Kanak Rele vividly narrated her experience as a Mohiniattam dancer, her lifetime contribution in resurrecting and promoting Mohiniatttam at the international level and gave the dance form a new respectability and recognition, as the dance was almost extinct. After learning Kathakali from the veteran actor 'Panchali' Karunakara Panicker, she started learning Mohiniattam from Kalamandalam Rajyalakshmi who joined Nalanda as a mentor. The Ford Foundation grant enabled her to make a film on the three pioneer mentors of Mohiniattam - Chinnammu Amma, Kunjukutty Amma and Kalyanikutty Amma - and how she introduced and discovered her own style of Mohiniattam with the musical guidance rendered by veteran lyricist and music composer Kavalam Narayana Panicker in the Sopanam Sangeetam style and the most memorable feat of introducing bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees in dance and getting it affiliated to the Mumbai University, by establishing Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya (principal Dr. Uma Rele).

Dr Kanak Rele said, "After marriage to Yatin Rele, we went abroad for higher studies. I obtained a degree in International Law from the 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."

Hema Malini who was the chief guest on the occasion narrated as to she became aware of Dr Kanak Rele. "I started learning Bharatanatyam from Guru Kittappa Pillai as my mother insisted. I also learnt Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam. I had heard about Kanakji as my mentor used to come to Nalanda to spend some time here. One day I saw her exquisite performance and was completely mesmerized by the beauty and charm of Kanakji. The book is a storehouse of information and is a must for everyone who wants to know what is Mohiniattam and the significance of classical dance."

Veteran journalist from Kerala, George Paul, who attended the function said, "I know her for so many years and have written so much about Kanak behn. Initially when Kanak introduced her style of Mohiniattam based on Sopanam Sangeetam, it was not readily acceptable, as anything new in Kerala is always criticized but today she holds the supreme position that she won the prestigious award of the Kerala government in the name of Guru Gopinath. This is indeed a unique achievement. Today Kanak Rele's style of Mohiniattam is accepted internationally."

Book - Me and My Mohiniattam

Published by Purple Peacock Books, Kolkata, 'Me and My Mohiniattam' is a unique book with foreword by MP, Dr. Narendra Jadhav. It is a most readable book, and provides a captivating, indeed enchanting account of Kanak Rele's life journey written in a lucid manner and illustrated with photographs. The book presents a heart touching story. Hema Malini says, "I compliment Kanakji for her great contribution to the world of dance and now for this lovely gem she has so graciously created for all of us, her ardent readers."

Radha Khambati (niece of Kanak behn) has assisted her in writing this book, besides the support of Dr. Meenakshi Iyer and Vaidehi Rele. The 338 pages of the book covers a wide and broad perspective of her colourful life as a daughter, wife, mother, dancer, choreographer, teacher, educationist, examiner, scholar etc, commencing with her birth in a rich Gujarati industrialist Divecha family. The first chapter deals with her childhood. Born on 11th June 1937 as the daughter of Madhuri and Shivdas Divecha, she lived in the beautiful bungalow in Peddar Road in Bombay. Of her early life in Shantiniketan, she says, "I was brought up in the lap of nature and those experiences I cannot forget."

Even today, she sings those beautiful songs of Rabindranath Tagore, as she had spent some of her formative days at Shantiniketan. Kanak's first encounter with her Guru 'Panchali' Karunakara Panicker along with Guru Raghavan Nair was when she was around the age of ten, and was ill, due to severe pain in her legs, that took a long time to heal. After several physiotherapy sessions and regular application of ayurvedic oils, gradually she could start walking and later dance too, due to her strong desire and determination to learn Kathakali.

Chapter 3 deals with her family and ultimately how she met her husband Yatin Rele. Chapter five deals with her painful experience when Yatin was seriously ill. The other chapters pertain to Kanak's love for Kerala, Kanak as a woman, the establishment of Nalanda, Kanak's affair with Mohiniattam and being acclaimed as the queen of abhinaya, Kanak's experience of teaching dance to the physically challenged and dance as a therapy, Kanak's experience of meeting the famous lyricist and music composer Kavalam Narayana Panicker and establishing her own style, which was quite different from the traditional style of Mohiniattam taught at Kerala Kalamandalam.

The remaining chapters deal with Kanak's sense of humour in Let's Laugh with Kanak and the all India phenomena of Indian classical dance. As to how Kanak creates magic and Kanak's Nritya Natya Sameeksha, written by Dr. Meenakshi Iyer-Gangopadhyay are other highlights of the book.

The second last 17th chapter deals with several persons connected with Kanak behn as disciples. The first male disciple Deepak Mazumdar shares his beautiful experience with Kanak behn; staff of Nalanda, musicians and other persons pay their tributes to the legendary Kanak behn. The last chapter features Kanak behn as a total dancer - as an educationist, setting up Nalanda, books written by Kanak Rele including 'Mohiniattam - the lyrical dance,' a handbook of dance terminology, Bhava Nirupana and the latest being 'Me and My Mohiniattam.'

The book lists Kanak's dance dramas that include 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.

Dr. Kanak Rele is possibly the only Mohiniattam exponent to receive the prestigious Padma Bhushan award, besides several other honours and awards. A must read for everyone connected with classical dance, a lifetime contribution towards the resurrection, promotion and propagation of Mohiniattam.

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

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