To describe Kerala as a state situated in the southernmost part of India along the Arabian Sea would be putting it too simply. This narrow coastal strip with its humble, yet exotic geographical proportions, belies a culture steeped in a complex history. The Western Ghats on one side insulated it from the rest of south India, while the Arabian Sea on the other constantly exposed it to foreign influences. Kerala came into being when Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu (a member of the Hindu trinity), retrieved this land from the sea by throwing his axe from Kanyakumari, the southernmost part of India to Gokarna in Karnataka.
Today it is an invaluable repository of innumerable art forms because it developed the resilience not only to preserve tradition, defying several centuries, but in the wake of outside influences, welcomed them. At the same time, it managed to retain its indigenous identity. Like Mohini, the mythological enchantress, Kerala ensnared, but never really yielded. As a region abounding in black gold (as pepper was known) and other exotic spices, foreign traders were lured from far and wide, beginning from the Phoenicians to the Arabs, Chinese and the Europeans. It is not surprising to find here the first church built in India or the oldest mosque, preceding which was the significant presence of Jainism and Buddhism.
Kerala is perhaps the only region in the country where classical theatre known as Koodiyattam, continues to be the only surviving tradition of the classical Sanskrit plays written between the second and the 11th centuries A.D. This tradition is not only one of the oldest and richest, but perhaps the one with the longest sustained history. Sanskrit theatre was brought to Kerala by the Aryan Brahmin settlers from the North. Gradually this theatre-form started getting a regional character by imbibing its indigenous culture.
However, what distinguishes Koodiyattam theatre from others in the same genre is the role of women in it, both as actors and singers. The unique privilege that women enjoyed was in sharp contrast to the practice of men or boys appearing in female roles in European theatre.
Story has it that the Aryan Brahmin settlers of Kerala were requested by Parasurama to adopt matriliny for the atonement of his matricidal sin. Perhaps the most distinct aspect of the social fabric of Kerala was the prevalence of the matriarchal system known as Marumakkatayam, where the women enjoyed the right to inheritance. Consequently, Nair women became self-reliant in society and unlike women from other communities, had the freedom to educate themselves. This privilege enjoyed by the women-folk of Kerala could have inspired the aesthetic and cultural life, finding expression in many feminine dance forms like Nangiar Kuthu, Kaikuttikali and Mohiniyattam.
Like the rest of the country, Kerala too had a temple-dance tradition known as Dasiyattam, which was probably introduced from Tamil Nadu. While Nangiar Kuthu preserved its tradition in the koothambalams or temple-theatres, a similar tradition existing in the temples of Kerala was Dasiyattam. Many of the kavyas and champus written from the 12th century onwards describe courtesans and their social life. These works extolled the virtues of the highly accomplished courtesans who were well-versed in the sensuous tradition of Sanskrit love poetry.
It is really surprising how the work of an Oriya poet left an indelible mark on the cultural ethos of Kerala. Jayadeva’s Geeta Govindam, one of the most revered works in classical Sanskrit poetry, celebrating the divine love of Radha and Krishna was introduced in Kerala with the spread of the Bhakti movement, led by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the 16th century. This gave a fillp to the Vaishnava philosophy throughout the country.
In Kerala, this was a period of hectic creative activity. Inspired and influenced by Geeta Govindam, Manaveda, Zamorin of Calicut wrote Krishna Geethi, Krishnattam being a visual representation of this work. Like the ashtapadis, its quintessence was Bhakti with sringara forming the leitmotif. Inspired by Krishnattam, the Raja of Kotarakara created Ramanattam (which later got known as Kathakali) describing Rama’s life. The rendering of ashtapadis in the temples of Kerala has been a tradition for several centuries. An integral part of temple rituals, one finds them sung in temples like the Guruvayur even today in a distinctly regional style known as sopana.
The first reference to Mohiniyattam is in Vyavaharamala composed by Mayamangalam Narayanan Namboodri in 1709 A.D. It mentions rules to be observed regarding fees of artistes to be shared during a performance. Maharaja Kartika Tirunal Balarama Varma, author of Balarama Bharatam (1758-1798) said that the book had been written after a careful study of Lasya Tantra ( the style of the lasya dance). Travancore palace records reveal that even as early as 1801, the palace was incurring expenditure on Mohiniyattam. We also get an idea of the popularity of Mohiniyattam from the works of Kunchan Nambiar, who in his Ghoshayatra mentions Mohiniyattam in passing. There is also a reference to Mohini natana in the great treatise on the regional art forms of Kerala, Balarama Bharatam.
The origin of Mohiniyattam can be traced to the concept of Mohini, the enchantress. According to Puranic legends, Vishnu, the Preserver, appeared in the form of a damsel to protect the Universe from evil. Vishnu transformed himself into Mohini whenever evil prevailed and restored good. The spirit of the dance-form being that of the enchantress, the technique of Mohiniyattam is essentially feminine and languorous. Its soft, graceful movements, unhindered by any abruptness, is reminiscent of the swaying palm trees and the undulating waves of the ocean.
A major landmark in the evolution of Mohiniyattam was the reign of Maharaja Swathi Tirunal in the 19th century. A great connoisseur of music, Mohiniyattam received a considerable amount of royal patronage during this period. With an attempt to embellish Mohiniyattam, Swathi Tirunal composed several compositions, enriching its musical aspect. Mohiniyattam got a further impetus when he invited the Tanjore Quartet to improve upon the technique of the dance form. He also persuaded Irayaman Thampi, well-known poet and musicologist in his court to compose pieces for Mohiniyattam.
With his vast knowledge of the arts along with the assistance and influence of the Tanjore Quartet and dancers like Sugandhavalli among others from Tamil Nadu, Tirunal possibly enhanced whatever form of Mohiniyattam was prevalent at that time. But the untimely demise of the Maharaja proved to be a huge setback for this dance form.
Just as every art form experiences its phases of revival and neglect, Mohiniyattam too emerged from an eclipsed state. The early years of the 20th century saw the Renaissance of all the classical dance-traditions of India. It was during this time that Rukmini Devi Arundale, the founder of Kalakshetra gave Bharatanatyam its present name, changing it from Sadir.
Meanwhile, a parallel cultural revival was taking place in Kerala and in 1935, the great poet, Vallathol Narayana Menon established Kalamandalam to revive and popularise Mohiniyattam, besides the other major art forms of Kerala like Koodiyattam and Kathakali.
Due to concerted efforts of dance researchers and the performers themselves, Mohiniyattam is today acknowledged as one on the most prominent dance forms of India. It has also found international recognition.