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Mohiniattam workshop by Gopika Varma
- SK Venugopal

May 5, 2023

I attended a workshop on Mohiniattam as an observer on the 23rd of April 2023 at Levee Hall, in the beautiful ambience of Kuthira Malika Palace, Thiruvananthapuram. A three-day workshop from 21st of April was being conducted by the popular Mohiniattam exponent and teacher Gopika Varma. There were participants not only from Kerala but also from other parts of India and from US, Australia and UAE. There were about 70 participants of different age groups, some of them dance teachers themselves.

What I found unique about this workshop is the way it was conceived and presented. The objective itself I was told is to unearth the very rare and hitherto unsung works of great composers of yester years and make them popular through the medium of dance. This time, Gopika chose a Swathi Thirunal kriti originally composed in ragam Punnagavarali. With the scholastic support of T.K. Govinda Rao, the kriti was reset in Ragamalika and roopaka talam in order to make it best suited for dance choreography. Maharaja Swathi Thirunal in this beautiful piece of work narrates the story of Lord Krishna from the time of his birth till his ascension to heaven (Swargarohanam). Dasama Skandam (10th Canto) of Srimad Maha Bhagavatham was the inspiration for Swathi Thirunal to write this gem of a kriti.

Mohiniattam workshop by Gopika Varma
Gopika Varma

During my discussions with Gopika, she explained how she went through the process of organising this workshop. Choosing a rare kriti and making of a music audio was itself a big challenge. With the active involvement of a team of great musicians under the able guidance of T.K. Govinda Rao, she succeeded in coming out with a masterly piece of music. As a person who is known for her zeal for perfection, her choice of musicians was obvious. The team consisted of following members: vocal - Rajesh Ravindran, veena - Soundararajan, flute - Vivek Shenoy, mridangam, maddalam and nritya patterns - Nagarajan, and edakka - Sajith Pappan. The music was recorded at Arabhi Studios, Thiruvananthapuram. The audio when played at the magnificent venue of the workshop in the backdrop of Kuthira Malika, the palace where Swathi Thirunal wrote many of his works, was quite a blissful experience. The raga selections were so apt for the lyrics and the effects given by accompanying musicians to highlight the aspect of bhava of each verse were noteworthy. Overall, it appeared to be a very cohesive effort of musicians and the choreographer together to come up with a fabulous keerthanam which could be used for both Mohiniattam and Bharatanatyam.

Being the last day of the workshop, she had almost completed teaching the choreography and therefore when she made the participants perform the portions covered, it gave me a fair idea about the structure of the choreography in general. The keerthanam deals with stories starting with the birth of Lord Krishna, how he was taken out of Mathura by Vasudeva in the heavy rains protected by the serpent Adisesha, his playful acts at Gokulam, the slaying of demons sent by Kamsa, showing of vishwaroopam to Yasodha, Akroora coming to take away Krishna and his journey to Mathura, the slaying of Kamsa, marriage with Rukmini and 8 more maidens, meeting with Kuchela and how he was blessed with prosperity and happiness, the story of Santanagopalam, the Geethopadesham during the war of Mahabharatha, how he goes to the forest in the end and gets hit by an arrow of a hunter at his lotus feet leading to his ascension to heaven. The last charanam of the kriti was taught in my presence by Gopika, which was an amazing experience to watch.

It is too premature to comment on a choreography which just took birth. But from what I have seen at the workshop, the synchronization of movements, particularly the adavus and chuzhippus (basic techniques of Mohiniattam) were so graceful. The episodes in Krishna's life unfolded in front of me with so much clarity and ease, with the soulful music and skilful interpretation of each story with apt expressions to suit. All of them performing together was a sight to behold.

Mohiniattam workshop by Gopika Varma

The camaraderie amongst participants was remarkable. There were 8 participants of Bharatanatyam style too in the workshop. The best part was the way they were helping each other with corrections and suggestions for improvements. Some of the features that I found remarkable are that in addition to providing the audio CD of the music to each participant, she gives video recordings in segments separately so that participants can go home and practice well. Also, I was told there shall be a zoom meeting to discuss and revise their learnings as a follow up measure.

After the penultimate session, when I was requested to address the participants, I spoke about how the 'mother of Mohiniattam' legendary Kalamandalam Kalyani Kutty Amma did the pioneering work to build a strong foundation for Mohiniattam and how she went on creating proper techniques (adavus) for the dance form thereby giving classical status to Mohiniattam with well-designed concert format for performances. There may be many styles (bani) which were developed later by others with modifications based on their creative freedom, but I reminded the participants to always remember and show reverence to this legendary Guru for her humongous service to the dance form, even while following those different styles.

The choreography presented on the day had this Kalyani Kutty Amma flavour of grace and beauty that represents the traditional Mohiniattam. Gopika Varma having had the privilege of learning this classic style from none other than the legend herself, and later under her daughter Sreedevi Rajan and Kalamandalam Sugandhi, till today follows this style. She was proud to say that all her disciples therefore could claim to be grand disciples of the doyen of Mohiniattam, Kalamandalam Kalyani Kutty Amma. Winner of many awards including Kendra Sangeetha Nataka Academy, Gopika Varma conducts her online and offline classes from her institution Dasyam at Chennai and Bangalore.

S.K. Venugopal
S.K. Venugopal is a businessman in the field of Engineering projects, but also a singer, composer, accredited artist 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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