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Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Guru Nirmala Paniker
- Bindu Rajendren

September 9, 2023

On 28 August 2023 in an event filled with love and humility, Guru Nirmala Paniker was acknowledged and bestowed with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for 2019 (Dance - Mohiniattam) at a function held in the newly renovated Kottechetam theatre space at Natanakairali, Irinjalakuda. Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University Vice Chancellor Dr. M.V. Narayanan observed that the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) is honouring itself by honouring such an esteemed artiste in her home grounds.

Guru Nirmala Paniker - Sangeet Natak Akademi award for 2019

For over fifty years, Guru Nirmala Paniker has been a silent enricher for Mohiniattam through her dedicated choreographic and scholastic contributions. She has been acknowledged as a performance researcher who works diligently towards nourishing the practice of dance through both a historical and contemporary approach. Due to health-related issues, Nirmala Teacher (as she is fondly called) was unable to travel to Delhi to partake in the award ceremony early this year to receive the award directly from the President of India. However, due to the concerted efforts of Aneish P. Rajan (IRS), Director (Academies), Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India and Mohammed Hanish (IAS), Principal Secretary (Health and Industries), Govt. of Kerala, the award ceremony was organised and held at Irinjalakuda. It was one of the rare instances that an artiste was being felicitated in her home soil. Dr. M.V. Narayanan, in great respect and humour, pointed out the often quoted saying, 'If the mountain will not go to Mohammed, then Mohammad must come to the mountain' acknowledging the splendid efforts taken by SNA to felicitate this great artiste at Natanakairali.

Nirmala Paniker commenced her life in art at the age of 5 under the tutelage of Shadow Gopinath in semi-classical/ folk dances and continued until the age of 17. She later graduated from RLV Fine Arts Academy, Thrippunithura, with a diploma and post diploma in Bharatanatyam (Kalakshetra style) under the guidance of Kalakshetra Vilasini and RLV Radhamony. During this time, Nirmala Teacher also began learning Mohiniattam from the mother of Mohiniattam - Guru Kalamandalam Kalyanikkutty Amma, whose bani she follows to this day. Teacher has trained briefly at Kalamandalam under Gurus Kalamandalam Sathyabhama and Kalamandalam Padmini. She has also briefly studied Kathak and Odissi. Not very long after this, Nirmala Teacher began working as a dance teacher at the Lawrence School in Lovedale, Ooty. The access to a well-stocked library at the school provoked and became the catalyst for Nirmala Teacher's research to begin flourishing. Teacher spent most of her time, during vacations in Kerala, undertaking research and establishing an understanding of the linkages between existing Keralan art forms like Thiruvathirakali, Nangiar Koothu and Koodiyattam.

Guru Nirmala Paniker
Nirmala Paniker

She began training under the legendary Guru Ammanur Madhava Chakyar and other reputed gurus in Nangiar Koothu - Villuvattathu Kochukutty Nangiaramma and Kunjippillakkutty Nangiaramma. Post retirement from Lawrence School in Lovedale, Nirmala Teacher established the Natana Kaisiki Gurukulam and Research Centre for Mohiniattam under the auspices of Natanakairali. It is from this point onwards that Teacher's research took wings and has so far culminated in the form of 9 published books and countless research articles. The analysis and connections that are established throughout these books are underpinned by understandings based out of research conducted over the course of decades, as a true seeker of knowledge. This was also the time when Guru Nirmala Paniker established a grounded pedagogical approach and began creating new works and reviving long lost and forgotten choreographies.

I have been Guru Nirmala Paniker's student for the past few years and have had the opportunity to stay with her and watch and learn from her at close quarters. I can vouch that Nirmala Teacher lives and breathes dance along with the splatterings of everything else that comes with it. She establishes an eco-spiritual approach and understanding in her pedagogic practices and choreographic works. She is renowned in India and internationally for her explorations on the indigenous components of Mohiniattam and the creation and development of the Desi style of Mohiniattam.

In the absence of Akademi Chairman, Sandhya Purecha who could not travel to Irinjalakuda, Vice Chairman Joravarsinh Jadav felicitated and presented the award to Guru Nirmala Paniker. Dignitaries, Aneish P. Rajan from the Ministry of Culture and Dr. Ettumanoor Kannan, Director of Koodiyattam Center, welcomed everyone at the event. All dignitaries lit the lamp to commence the start of the function. The award plaque, shawl and certificate and monetary award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi were handed over to Guru Nirmala Paniker to warm applause from the audience. Mattannur Shankarankutty Marar, Chairman of Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, Dr. M.V. Narayanan, Vice Chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University & Kalady Sanskrit University, Mohammed Hanish IAS, (Principal Secretary - Health & Industries, Government of Kerala), Aishwarya Dongre, IPS, Superintendent of Police, Thrissur Rural, Suja Sanjeev Kumar, Irinjalakuda Municipal Chairperson and Vayalar Sarath Chandra Varma, Member of General Council, Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi were the other dignitaries who were also present and spoke at the event.

Guru Nirmala Paniker expressed immense gratitude on receiving the award. Her simple humility and wonderment shone through at her acceptance speech when she said, "I am a small person and feel very lucky to receive this award". Teacher also mentioned that she was inspired by the 94 published works of Joravarsinh Jadavji and sought his blessings to be able to write and publish more of her research works. Nirmala Teacher was also individually felicitated with a shawl each by Dr. M.V. Narayanan and Suja Sanjeev Kumar.

A Mohiniattam concert was presented by disciples of Guru Nirmala Paniker after the award ceremony. The revived Desi choreographies of 'Poli' was presented by Teacher's daughter and Koodiyattam practitioner Kapila Venu and 'Esal' was presented by Hridya Haridas and Kalyani Menon Harikrishnan. Musical accompaniments were by Nelamboor Suresh Kumar at the vocals, Kalamandalam Prakashan on maddalam, Murali Krishna on the veena, Kalanilayam Ramakrishnan on the edakka and Teacher's disciple Sandra Pisharody rendered the nattuvangam. This was followed by a grand Onam feast for all the attendees of the event. The whole event was streamed online by

Guru Nirmala Paniker - Sangeet Natak Akademi award for 2019

During the Award ceremonial event it was constantly observed how Guru Nirmala Paniker has always chosen to stay away from the limelight. Dr. M.V. Narayanan noted that many years ago at a Mohiniattam workshop, Teacher chose to stay backstage interacting and nurturing the students as opposed to being on stage. As her student, I can affirm that Nirmala Teacher is her happiest self when she is researching and in the company of her students whilst teaching and talking dance. By conferring this award on Guru Nirmala Paniker, Sangeet Natak Akademi has graciously acknowledged the contributions of a living legend of Mohiniattam who has always chosen to shy away from the camera lights and remain behind the scenes to only focus on further nourishing Mohiniattam as an art form and nurturing her small group of students. There could not have been a more befitting artiste to have received this award.

Bindu Rajendren
Bindu Rajendren is an Australia based practitioner and researcher of Mohiniattam. She is currently pursuing advanced training in Mohiniattam with Guru Nirmala Paniker. An obsession with letting her mind wander is often what inspires Bindu's dance creatives, artwork, paintings, and poetry.

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