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Mohiniattam - Staging of Grace

Indian dance styles based on legends, mythologies and devotional themes are divergent in their technique. At the same time there is a central motif running through them: the theme of devotion expressed through the heroine that is the dancer to the hero who is none other than God himself. The human soul is conceived as a female yearning for union with the male.

Mohiniattam is one of the major classical dance styles of India. This art form from Kerala is perhaps one of the most graceful dances and totally identifies with the green environment, gentle singing of the palm trees and the calm ocean waters of this state. Kerala has always preserved all traditional arts and the people of the state consider it an integral part of everyday life.

The word Mohini means a maiden who charms the onlooker and attam means dance. Usually the legends in India links the name of Mohini to that of God Vishnu who had assumed the beautiful form of Mohini to entice Demon Bhasmasura and finally destroyed him. It is said that the demon had a boon which granted him immortality. He could die only if a hand was placed on his head. Mohini danced and made Bhasmasura also dance with her and suddenly for a moment placed her hand on her head. Bhasmasura too followed without thinking and then came his end. There is a common belief that perhaps the dance form got its names from this episode.

By the 16th century, Mohiniattam seemed to have established itself as a separate classical dance form of Karla but its popularity was confined to only some regions of the state. It is only in recent times in the 20th century that Mohiniattam has spread all over India and abroad. Mohiniattam is essentially a solo form of dance.

The royal family of Travancore gave the greatest encouragement to the dances performed by Dasis. Dasis are women who used to perform in front of the deities in the temples. There were dance schools or nataka salas preserved by the royalty where student used to be trained. The first reference to ‘Mohiniattam’ in literature is to be found in Vyanatraramala composed by M.N. Nambuderi assigned to 1709 AD. It tells about the Guru (teacher) of the Devdasi and the amount to be shared in balance by the whole troupe.

It was only in the 19th century AD that Maharaja Swati Thirunal the then King of Kerala encouraged and patronized Mohiniattam and thus stabilized the art form. He was a true rasika (connoisseur), who understood music and dance. He was a scholar, a poet and a great musician.

To make Mohiniattam a distinctive and attractive art form he composed a number of pieces called varnams and padams and made the music of this art form lyrically rich and attractive. He brought about reforms and improvements in the style and included Mohiniattam recitals in festive celebrations. He also had a dance troupe under his patronage. In his attempts to revive Mohiniattam, he took help of the famous Thanjavur quartet who were famous composers in the Bharatanatyam style of classical dance. Maharaja Swati Thirunal could undoubtedly be said to be the pioneer of Mohiniattam style.

Various teachers and Gurus kept the Mohiniattam dance tradition alive by their efforts In 1930, Mahakavi Valathol founded Kerala Kala Mandalam and along with Kathakali he included Mohiniattam so as to revive the dance form. The first dancer was Kalyaniamma. She also taught in Shantiniketan under Rabindranath Tagore’s invitation. The other notable teachers in Kerala Kala Mandalam were KrishnaPaniker and Madhavi Amma. In 1950 Thottasseri Chinnammu Amma Joined. It was from these Gurus that a new generation of dancers were born. These teachers maintained the classical patterns of teaching following text like Natyasastra and Abhinayyadarpana.

As of now, Mohiniattam is a widely known and popular dance form. The contemporary well known artists, teachers and institutions are Kalamandalam Satyabhama, Ms. Kanaka Rele, Ms. Bharati Shivaji, Guru Thankamani Kutti’s institution in Calcutta, Nalanda institution formed by Kanaka Rele and Nrityagram Bangalore established by Pratima Gouri provides training in Mohiniattam. The technique of Mohiniattam accentuates lasya and Sringara or romance is the prominent rasa. Rasa means the dominant emotion.

As mentioned earlier Maharaja Swati Thirunal devised a complete repertoire for Mohiniattam, and later Gurus and dancers added more items to that. The basic repertoire begins with the Calkkettu – which means stylized rhythm, beginning and ending with passages of invocation. It is followed by a Jathiswaram which is a pure dance sequence. The Varnam is the piece de resistance which has the emotive as well as the pure dance sequences. A purely emotive piece is followed by another rhythmic composition. The Tala or system of rhythm in Kerala is unique. Special mention can be made of Pancha Kumbha Tala – which are a combination of Five patterns – the five representing the five flowery arrows or Manmatha – the God of love.

The main percussion instrument used in Mohiniatttam is Eddaka. The body of this drum is made of Jack wood and is about a quarter metre long. The skin of calf leather is stretched across a circular ring and placed against the mouth of the drum, one on each side.

The beauty of Indian classical dance is also its appropriate and relevant costume and jewellery. The traditional costume of Mohiniattam is white with gold. The dancer usually wears gold ornaments which symbolizes, purity, truth and immortality – all these are attributed to the dance of the celestial maidens. The dancer wears a pair of large round ear studs known as Toda. The necklace is the traditional Nagapadam in the shape of a snake’s hood, and the powanmala – a chain made of gold coins. The forehead is covered with an ornament called the Nethichutti and the nose is adorned by Mukkuthi or nose ring. The bangles are known as Kappu. The coiffure is unique as it is a gathered bun on the left side of the head. The tilaka or the red mark on the forehead represents conjugal fidelity of the Hindu women.

The distinctive style of Mohiniattam is the complete absence of heavy stamping and rhythmical tension. Footwork is gentle and soft and sliding. The movements are never abrupt, they are dignified, easy and natural, but the vertical line of the body is never broken. Hence, among the styles detailed by Bharata Muni in the ancient Indian treatise on dance, the Natya Sastra, Mohiniattam resembles the Kaisiki type meaning graceful. So, the style becomes most suitable for showing Sringara Rasa or the emotion of love.