Mohiniyattam

MOHINIYATTAM is one of the most lyrical classical dance traditions, originating from Kerala, the land of palm trees, backwaters, caparisoned elephants, Kathakali and Koodiyattam, and innumerable folk arts and festivals; that is God's own land.

Its movements are soft and graceful (lasya oriented) and soaked in feminine grace. They have been likened to the sway of palm leaves in the gentle breeze. Mohini means enchantress and attam means dance; Mohiniyattam is the dance of the enchantress traditionally performed by women.

The tradition of Mohiniyattam can be traced back to the 16th-17th century, a period generally considered as the golden era of arts and literature in the history of Kerala. A few scholars consider Balaramabharatam authored by Karthika Thirunal Balarama Varma of the Swathithirunal family, which in fact is an elaboration of the 6th to 10th chapters of the Natyashastra, as an authentic treatise on Mohiniyattam. The murals and sculptures of the 18th century in some temples and palaces too depict the concept of Mohini.

The earliest known textual reference to Mohiniyattam is found in the commentary on the Vyavaharamala, a Sanskrit text written by Mazhamangalam Namboodiri during the 16th century. In the commentary believed said to be authored by a Brahmin scholar who migrated to Kerala, the word for "dancers" was translated as "Mohiniyattam artist etc". Another reference on Mohiniyattam can be found in the Ottanthullal (a semi-classical and semi-folk dramatic art form of Kerala) script Ghoshayatra, authored by Kunchan Nambiar during the second half of the 18th century.

Betty True Jones, lecturer in Indian classical dance at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the South Asia Student Performing Group, did the first in-depth research work on Mohiniyattam in 1959-60. Her paper was published in 1973 by the Committee on Research in Dance of the New York University. However, it did not earn the attention that it deserved from Indian dance scholars.

Perhaps Mohiniyattam is the only art form of India that was subject to several revivals and renaissance. The efforts of Maharaja Swathitirunal (1813-1846) and the attempts of Kerala poet laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon, in 1932,1937 and in 1950, are important endeavours in the history of this art. The late Thankamani was the first student of Mohiniyattam at the Kerala Kalamandalam (1932). She left the institution within a couple of years on her marriage to the late Guru Gopinath. Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma and Kalamandalam Sathyabhama are respectively the proteges of the later efforts of Vallathol, during 1937 and 1950 respectively, through this institution.

The tradition of this dance form sustained through the contributions of these two veterans; while Guru Kalyanikutty Amma's was an effort at her individual level, Guru Sathyabhama got the platform of the Kerala Kalamandalam, where since 1957, until her retirement as its Principal in 1993, she was faculty. Through the Kalamandalam Sathyabhama reformed the art more aesthetically by giving an indigenous touch to the hairstyle, adapting more adavus and mudras.

From the introduction to the article on Pallavi Krishnan by GITTA VAN BUUREN (Amsterdam), The story of an enchantress, The Hindu (Sunday Magazine), October 18, 1998.