Atlanta hosts the ‘Ambassador of Mohiniattom’  
by Arun P Madangarli 

September 23, 2003  

The lights dim, and there is an expectant hush as the audience falls silent.  A spark of light appears on the darkened stage, which sways and flickers and then grows into a flame from a burning wick.  A dancer, a vision attired in the purest of whites, steps slowly, languorously to the front of the stage, bearing in her hand the traditional ‘Nilavilakku’ (lamp) of Kerala. 

No, this scene was not set in ‘God’s own country’ in the south-east corner of India.  It was at the Hindu Temple of Atlanta in Riverdale, Georgia, and the occasion was the mesmerizing evening of Mohiniattom performance by Kalamandalam Radhika on September 6, 2003. 

Atlanta (like most cosmopolitan U S cities) has an over-abundance of regional cultural associations from India, all offering diverse windows through which the rich panoply of Indian culture might be viewed.  Still, no forum had yet hosted any classical event that was truly from Kerala, the birthplace of two of India’s seven classical dance forms. 
This want was felt deeply by a group of art aficionados from Kerala who, spearheaded by Manoj Kumar and Gita Maheshwaran, ventured forth to rectify this paucity.  The result was an enchanting evening of Mohiniattom, performed by Kalamandalam Radhika. 

Mohiniattom is one of the most graceful and sensuous classical dance forms to have evolved in south India.  With its highly emotive hand gestures and eye movements that are unique to this art form, the artiste etches in real life the celestial Mohini, who charmed away the elixir of life from the asuras who stole it.  And Radhika is a doyen of this art, a veritable Mohini, who with her daring and original experiments and explorations at the frontiers of this dance form has given it entirely new dimensions.  This exemplary artiste who started her ‘kalopasana’ (worship of art) at the tender age of three has choreographed and performed Mohiniattom items in several languages.  She has drawn her themes from extremely diverse sources such as Biblical stories and poetical works like those of Kuvempu, Amruth Someshwar, Veerappa Moily, Fr. Abel and St. Chavara.  She has performed in such a multitude of national and international forums, The Hindu calls her ‘The Ambassador of Mohiniattom’. 

The evening’s performance started with a brief introduction to Mohiniattom where Radhika traced the evolution of Mohiniattom into a classical dance form and touched briefly on the significant features of this art.  Bounded by the natural borders of the Arabian Sea to the west and the Western Ghats to the east, Kerala has always enjoyed a certain geographical isolation and extremely benevolent climatic conditions.  Art, especially stylized art, flourished under these circumstances because, in Radhika’s words “People had enough to eat.  And so they had the leisure to focus on art”.  This was the milieu in which Mohiniattom and Kathakali (the other classical dance form from Kerala) developed.  Mohiniattom has in fact borrowed quite heavily from the highly stylized structural frame work of Kathakali and also from its infinitely vast repository of mudras.  But Kathakali was a male-dominated, austere dance form, and Mohiniattom, in many respects, rebelled against this.  It infused lyricism into what was essentially a temple-dance elsewhere, and brought it out into mainstream theatrics.  Fusing the dramatic, emotional movements of Kathakali into Mohiniattom resulted in a tremendous dependence on (and utilization of) ‘abhinaya’.  

Radhika rendered seven items during her performance, starting with a Navarasanjali composed by K C Kesavapillai, in which the goddess Kali is propitiated by an offering of the ‘Navarasas’ (the nine emotions) that form the cornerstone of Indian aesthetics.  This was followed by ‘Omanathinkal Kidavo,’ the quintessential lullaby composed by Irayimman Thampi that plucks at the heartstrings of everyone who follows its gentle, soothing melody.  The audience sat entranced, wafted away to those halcyon days of childhood on the wings of nostalgia, while this piece was being performed.   

Another item from Radhika’s repertoire was ‘’Radhika, Tava Virahey Kesava’ the ninth ashtapadi from Gita Govindam, in which the artiste rendered a superb exposition of the purva raga aspect of  vipralambha sringara rasa.  A most delightful varnam (‘Karmukil Oli Varna, Kanna…’) dedicated to Lord Guruvayoorappan (Krishna) followed, which related tales of the Lord’s compassion.  In fact, this item demonstrated the scope and extent to which abhinayam plays a role in Mohiniattom, as Radhika gave an extremely moving portrayal of a little boy’s grief, and his innocent, selfless love for Guruvayoorappan, that left the  audience teary eyed. 

Maharaja Swati Tirunal’s famous padam ‘Panimathi Mukhi Bale...’ brought out all the elements that immortalizes Mohiniattom,  where, while staying rooted in the sthayi bhava of sringara, the virahothkhandita nayika runs a gamut of emotions as she recounts the bliss she had in the arms of her lover,  her sorrow at his absence and her anger at his treachery when the time to rendezvous passes and he does not visit her.  This highly erotic padam offered a backdrop against which Mohiniattom could be compared with dance forms such as Bharatanatyam that developed in temple-precincts. Mohiniattom, with its coquetry that is aimed at seduction is highly secular, whereas in the other dance forms every movement and emotion has to be subjugated to bhakti. 

The famous kriti  ‘Krishna nee begane baro…’ was perhaps the most compelling instance of Radhika’s experimentations with the form and content of Mohiniattom, in which she illustrated how this art form can transcend the limitations imposed by artificial barriers like language.  This Kannada piece that is not part of the traditional Mohiniattom repertoire had never been performed as a Mohiniattom item until Radhika choreographed it.  In this, the artiste explores every aspect of a mother’s love for her child.  The item ends when Krishna’s mother sees the entire universe in his mouth, at which point the motherly love transcends into bhakti.  

The last item on this memorable evening was a thillana that brought out all the intricate and graceful movements of Mohiniattom. 

A most noble and laudable aspect of this Mohiniattom performance was that all the proceeds from this go to a charitable trust called ‘Nritya Dhara’ that seeks to ameliorate the living conditions of elderly and indigent artists who have long been forgotten by their fans and family.  In  Kalamandalam Radhika’s words, “None of what I show on the stage is mine; everything comes from the blessing and munificence of God.  I am thankful that He has chosen me to be a distributor of joy in the form of Mohiniattom.  And if by doing what I do, I can wipe the tears of these old and helpless masters, I need no other reward”. 

A noble sentiment indeed! 

Arun P Madangarli is an electrical engineer, art enthusiast and a literary writer. He can be contacted at 

Gita Maheshwaran, a supporter and promoter of Kerala classical art forms can be contacted at