About Me

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Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam dancer. Happily married to Dileep Kannan. Mother of a beautiful angel -Tamanna. Daughter of Mr. E.M Haridas & Mrs. Girija Haridas. Daughter-in-law of Dr. K. P Kannan & Mrs. Shobhana Kannan A Disciple of Smt. Shyamala Surendran at Dharani School of Performing Arts, Kochi MFA in Bharatanatyam from SASTRA University under the guidance of Dr. Padma Subramanyam

October 18, 2011

Chapter 10: Revival of Mohiniyattam

Just a few words before we start discussing the revival of Mohiniyattam (which went through two centuries).  

The entire world of Mohiniyattam and those who love this art form are indeed indebted to the efforts of a few people who dedicated a large part of their lives to bring back this graceful art form to its former full glory. The three people who mainly contributed to its revival were - Maharajah Swati Thirunal, Vallathol Narayana Menon and Kalamandalam Kalyani Kutty Amma (popularly known as the Mother of Mohiniyattam).

Maharajah Swathi Thirunal
Sri Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma (Born April 1813), popularly known as Swathi Thirunal, was the regent king of Travancore  who grew up to be an able and multi talented king as well a connoisseur of the arts.  His court was adorned with artistic luminaries such as Iriyamman Thampi (composer of the immortal lullaby "Omana Thingal Kidavo” which every Malayali mother must have sung for her baby), Kareendran, Shadkaala GovindaMarar, and the Tanjore Quartet (Chinnaya, Ponnaya, Vadivelu and Sivanandam), all of whom were renowned artistes on their own right. Carnatic Music, Hindustani Music, Mohiniyattam, Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Instrumental Music and other art forms were seen in his court.

Top (L-R): Iriyamman Thampi, Shadkala Govinda Marar, Kareendran

Bottom (L-R): Tanjore Quartet - Chinnaya, Ponnaya, Sivanandam, Vadivelu
Back then, the dance form that stood out was Kathakali, which was male-dominated. It is said that, at the insistence of Vadivelu (one of the brothers of the Tanjore Quartet), Mohiniyattam dancers were brought into the court of Swati Thirunal. This was a turning point for these female dancers, who were earlier seen in a bad light by the community. These dancers were shortly encouraged to become performers as well as teachers. 

Swati Thirunal (also known as Garbha Sriman), along with Iriyamman Thampi, composed many Varnams, Padams, Jathiswarams, and Thillanas, all which considerably enriched the music of Mohiniyattam.  He was heavily influenced by Carnatic Music and was instrumental in inculcating Carnatic Music into the music for Mohiniyattam.  This also brought about a  positive change in the field of Mohiniyattam. However, historical records suggest that, in spite of Swati Thirunal bringing up the status of the art form, he did not pay much attention to the lifestyles and public perception of the dancers.

Some believe that Mohiniyattam was actually invented in the courts of Swati Thirunal. Nonetheless, it’s believed that there are historical records which were found in Trivandram Public Library showing his patronage of this art form ;a letter  he had sent to the Meenachil Karthas (an aristocratic clan which ruled the small kingdom of Meenachil from the 15th century AD until 1754) requesting the latter to send a few Mohiniyattam dancers to his court. So there are chances he brought in more dancers from other parts of the state.
Jugalbandhi: Swati Thirunal’s Famous Thillana in Dhanasree (Geetadhuniku)

Like I said earlier, Swati Thirunal along with Iriyamman Thampi and his daughter Kuttykunju Thankachi, have plenty of compositions to their credit. Swati Thirunal, who was multilingual, has composed in Malayalam, Sanskrit, Telugu and Hindustani. The famous scholar-musician Padma Shri Dr. Prof Leela Omchery has compiled some of these compostions which gave importance to Abhinaya in a book named “Abhinayasangeetham”. In fact we are highly indebted to her for the long and enriching research she has done on the history of music in Kerala.

It is said that Swati Thirunal’s successor Uthram Thirunal was an avid fan of Kathakali. He did not find much appeal in the Lasya form of dance. Hence Parameshwara Bhagavathar,  who was the Mohiniyattam Bhagavathar (Learned music-scholar) cum Naatuvanar (sings and plays cymbals) at the time of Swati Thirunal’s rule left the court of Uthram Thirunal and returned to his home town Palakkad and started teaching young girls there. However, the art form which was filled with steps and movements dominated by Sringara Rasa (erotic love) to entertain  a predominantly male audience was once again expelled from the stages and the dancers were once again ostracized by the public.

A small ray of hope for this art form was seen at the home of a certain Krishna Menon in the 1920s in Korattikara near Trichur, Kerala where he was teaching Kaikottikali (a group dance performed by women in Kerala) to many girls. It was at that juncture that Guru Appekattu Krishna Panicker Asan chose a few girls from the same group to be trained in Mohiniyattam - namely O. Kalyani Amma (who later became the first teacher at Kerala Kalamandalam), Korattikara Madhavi Amma, Nelluvaya Kunjukutti Amma, Pazhanoor Chinnu Amma, Lakkidi Mankili Kochukutti Amma and Irinjalakuda Nadavarambu Kalyani Amma.

Mahakavi Vallathol
Koothambalam at Kerala Kalamandalam
In the 1930s arrived Mahakavi Valatthol Narayana Menon, in whose time we saw Mohiniyattam come back to its full splendour with a bang. He along with Mukunda Raja had by now already established the Kerala Kalamandalam, the world-renowned institute for classical art forms, inaugurated in November 1930 at Kunnamkulam, and which was later shifted to the village of Cheruthuruthy, just south of Shoranur in 1933. It was at his initiation that Mohiniyattam (which at that time was facing a slow death again after  Swati Thirunal’s time), was included as a course at the Kerala Kalamandalam. He started searching for adept Mohiniyattam dancers across the state and it was at this point that he found out Appekattu Krishna Panicker’s student O. Kalyani Amma (mentioned earlier) and saw her perform. He came across a lot of movements filled with vulgarity and made her aware of the same. Valatthol then censored the steps without losing the essence of the art form and taught this form to the first girl student of Kalamandalam, Thangamani, who later became a famous dancer and also the wife to Kathakali exponent and the mentor of Kerala NatanamGuru Gopinath. However her husband wasn’t very encouraging about her learning the art form due to the bad name it had acquired and she henceforth left Kerala Kalamandalam. Anyway, due to Vallathol’s inputs and innovations he brought to Mohiniyattam, it came to be known as THE classical dance form from Kerala, along with Kathakali.
Guru Gopinath and Thangamani
O. Kalyani Amma left for Shantiniketan (Kolkata) at Pandit Rabindranath Tagore’s behest after serving as a teacher at Kalamandalam for 2 years. In her absence Mohiniyattam classes at Kalamandalam  came to a stop for a while.  At this juncture came in Sri Madhava as a teacher, later known as Kalamandalam Madhavan, and his students included the well known Kalamandalam Kalyani Kutty Amma along with others named Lakshmi, Vilasini, Kochammini, Ammini, Thankam, and Balamohan. He was succeeded by Appekattu Krishna Panicker’s talented student Madhaviamma. 

In 1938, an order came from the then Maharaja of Kochi to ban Mohiniyattam from Kerala Kalamandalam for reasons bestknown to him.  However Vallathol, who had taken it upon himself to revive this beautiful art form personally visited the king and convinced him about the artistic value of this art form and made him withdraw the ban order.

A year later, Appekattu Krishna Panicker himself joined the institute to become a teacher and taught there till 1941 after which he resigned due to old age and once again the revival of Mohiniyattam came to a stop. In a couple of years, students started pouring iin to start learning Mohiniyattam and Krishna Panicker’s student Chinnu Amma (who won the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1972) joined as a teacher.

A word about the Mother of Mohiniyattam – Kalamandalam Kalyani Kutty Amma

Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma (lovingly known as Amma)
Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma is considered to be the mother of Mohiniyattam in its the current from. She was almost single handedly instrumental in executing the art form into a codified methodical form. Kalyanikutty Amma was introduced to Mohiniyattam in her early twenties when she joined Kerala Kalamandalam in 1937. During her childhood, she was a tomboyish, independent girl living in a family where female members were constrained inside the four walls of the house. She hailed from a reputed family from Thirunavaya, in Malappuram district of Kerala. Being the ambitious and intelligent girl that she was, she wanted to study. Finally, with her older brother’s recommendations, she along with her cousin went to Mahakavi Vallathol’s residence to learn Sanskrit. Her occasional visits to Kalamandalam after her studies made her fall in love with dance. Seeing her interest, Vallathol invited her to join the institute which she politely declined knowing fully well that her family would be against it as in those days dancing was considered inappropriate for girls from well-known families. But Vallathol encouraged her saying that if girls like her joined, then girls from other aristocratic families would also join without any issues. When it is written in the stars that you are born to achieve greatness, nothing can stop you. So without the permission of her family she joined Kerala Kalamandalam, which resulted in her family cutting all ties with her. Having until that time lived a luxurious life, it was initially quite difficult for her to follow the rigorous  timetable at the institute. But here was a girl who had given up everything and everyone who was near and dear to her - all for the sake of dance. She overcame all the difficulties to become one of the best known students of the institute, who also had the opportunity to meet renowned dancers such as Uday Shankar.

Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair with his wife
Later, after completing her studies in Kalamandalam, Mahakavi Vallathol handed her the responsibility of uplifting Mohiniyattam to an honourable status and bring more prominence to the art form. She embarked onto this mammoth task of reviving this art form from infamy with full devotion and gave it a solid foundation and structure. Along with the support and encouragement of her husband Padma Shri Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, she traveled intensively all over the Kerala region and visited numerous temples at Kanyakumari, Sucheendram, Padmanabhapuram, Keralapuram, Kochi Thirumala Devaswom, and Koodalmanikyam. She researched the numerous ancient temple inscriptions and also spoke to various temple dancers of the past who were still present at that time. In this way and through painstaking research, travel and numerous journeys to talk to earlier exponents of the art form, she was able to rebuild the foundations of Mohiniyattam to an extent enough to recover the art form from its derided status to a much higher level and henceforth Mohiniyattam began to acquire a more permanent position amongst the lauded classical dances of  India. She was deeply instrumental in fostering many adavus (steps) and present Mohiniyattam dance items in a repertoire (details of which will be illustrated in my future posts). The rest as they say, is history.

Also, a word about a few major changes made in Mohiniyattam by Mahakavi Valatthol Narayana Menon.

Earlier the Nattuvanar or the teacher used to sit right behind the performer with the Nattuvangam throughout the performance.Now the teacher is given an much more important position, and is seated on the right side of the stage.
L to R: Mridangam, Nattuvanar (Guru), Vocal, Flute, Violin

Instruments were changed according to the requirements of Carnatic Music. The Thoppi Madalam was replaced by the Mridangam, while in some instances, the Veena was almost completely replaced by the Violin. Hence it came to be that the Mridangam, Violin, Edakka and Thannivadyam artists along with the Nattuvanar sit on the rightside of the stage during a performance.

Dancers on the stage with Nattuvanar & Musicians on the right
L to R: Nattuvanar, Vocal, Flute, Edakka

    One of the foremost changes Vallathol made to Mohiniyattam was to remove all vulgar movements from the dance and similarly vulgar lyrics from the music as well. This was enforced as a strict order from the Mahakavi. As per historical records, in earlier times during performances, the dancers used to go in between the audience saying they have lost their nose-ring or the like and used to coyly request the audience to help them search for it and hence get the audience (which mostly comprised of males), excited.
     Another change Vallathol made was in the Angika Abhinaya (expressing the meaning of the song or lyrics using different body parts) that the art form was following until then. He brought in a codified form of Mudras (hand gestures) using the Hastalakshanadeepika. In addition he saw to it that Kaishiki (delicate movements), the Lasya form and the Lokadharmi style (realistic) of Abhinaya wasn't affected.

    He made it a point to see that the modified ways of performing the 4 kinds of Abhinaya (Angika, Vachika, Aaharya and Sathvika) were followed rigourously, but without violating the basic rules and tenets of Mohiniyattam.

By ringing in the changes mentioned above, Vallathol succeeded in making Mohiniyattam a very lovely dance form by removing all the movements laced with vulgarity and creating a visual treat for everyone’s eye ; old and young, men and women alike.

The world of Indian classical dance will be forever grateful for all his efforts and also to Kalyanikutty Amma for the wonderful contributions during her time. In the subsequent years post the time of Mahakavi Vallathol, Mohiniyattam was taken forward with the efforts of not only Kalyanikutty Amma, but also a host of her contemporaries and in later years by their students, most of whom are famous dancers in their own right today and who have done much for Mohiniyattam over the years.

Some of the well-known Mohiniyattam dancers of today are Kalamandalam Sathyabhama, Kshemavathy Pavitran, Kalamandalam Sugandi, Bharati Shivaji, Dr. Deepthi Omchery Bhalla, Jayaprabha MenonSmitha Rajan (grand-daughter of Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma), Gopika Varma, Sunanda Nair, Vineetha Nedungadi, Pallavi Krishna and many others.

Mohiniyattam Dancers
Top (L-R): Pallavi  Krishnan, Kalamandalam Sugandhi, Kal. Sathyabhama,  Kal. Kshemavathy
Centre (L-R) - Sunanda Nair , Vineetha Nedungadi, Gopika Varma
Bottom (L-R) : Dr. Deepthi  Omchery Bhalla, Smitha Rajan, Bharati Shivaji, Jayaprabha Menon

  • The book (in Malayalam) 'Mohiniyattom-Charitravum Aataprakaravum' by the Mohiniyattam maestro (Late) Smt. Kalamandalam Kalyanikuttiyamma (my Guru's Guru)

October 13, 2011

Chapter 9: Transition to "Mohiniyattam"

The earliest known textual reference about Mohiniyattam is found in a commentary within the Vyavaharamala, a Sanskrit text written by Mazhamangalam Namboodiri during the 16th century A.D. Some scholars still believe that, like Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam too was associated with the Devadasi tradition while other scholars believe that Mohiniyattam was a dance form performed by women who were not associated with Devadasi system. 

According to certain historical texts, it has been noted that in the 16th century A.D, the already depleted financial situation of the region of Kerala went from bad to worse  due to the invasion by the Portuguese. The rulers of the districts literally started snatching trading goods like pepper and other spices from their subjects and giving it away in trading/or as tribute to the foreigners. Cash crops such as pepper were also forced upon the farmers by the Portuguese as an agricultural priority, thereby causing lower production of rice and leading to acute food shortages.

This crisis started affecting everyone’s lives including the Devadasis. As their incomes started decreasing (which used to consist of offerings from temple devotees and/or gifts from the rich & famous temple patrons), the womenfolk soon saw their luxuries declining rapidly and were eventually forced towards a hand-to-mouth existence. Hence these women,  who had chosen dancing as their stated profession earlier and whose knowledge and skills had been passed down for generations, were apparently forced with no other choice but to resort to the oldest profession on earth for their basic survival (These instances have been noted in his books by the famous Kerala historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai). During these tough times, a few of the Devadasis also managed to stay within the temple premises. 

As time passed, 'moralistic' people (the self-styled superficial moral brigade of those times)  within the community started looking down upon these women and started denigrating them & their art form.  However, there were still a few art-lovers who tried their best to keep the art form alive. The situation was said to be similar in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu where the dance form was named as Dasiattam (Dasi = Servant & Attam = Dance), then became called as Sadiraattam (Court Dance) and hence finally received the name now known to all as Bharatanatyam. Similarly, the name Mohiniyattam which literally means “the dance of the enchantress”, must have come from the fact that the dancer used graceful expressions and/or movements meant to enchant or entice the audience.

There are two mythological legends around the name Mohiniyattam. Both of them are about the Lord Vishnu disguised as Mohini
Mohini (with Amrita in her hand) enticing the Devas and Asuras 
In the first story, Vishnu appears in the form of Mohini to lure the Asuras (demons) away from the amrita (nectar of immortality) obtained during the churning of the Palazhi or Ocean of Milk.
Churning of the ocean by the Gods and Demons
In the second story, Vishnu appears as Mohini (again) to save Lord Shiva from the demon Bhasmasura. The name Mohiniyattam might have been coined after Lord Vishnu (along the lines of the main protaganist Mohini in these stories), with the main theme of the dance being love and devotion to God, and with usually Vishnu or Krishna being the heroes in these dances.
Mohini tricking Bhasmasura to save Lord Shiva
There are references to Mohiniyattam during the time of the famous poet Kunjan Nambiar, as he has mentioned about the art form in some of his Thullal kadhas (a semi-classical and semi-folk dramatic art form of Kerala). This great poet, known for his satire, had the habit of scribbling down anything he saw around him. This is a couplet he wrote on Mohiniyattam and the other art forms that were present during that time as written in his Thulall kadha named “Ghoshayathra" (Procession).

Naatakanadanam Narmmavinodham
Patakapadanam Paavakoothum
Maadanimulamaar Mohiniyattam
Paadavamerina Palapala Melam
Translation (Rough):-
Nataka - Drama; Nadanam - Dance; Narmmavinodham - Fun & Entertainment (incl. Comedy); Patakapadanam - A type of art form; Paavakoothum - Puppet Show; Maadanimulamaar - Beautiful & Graceful Ladies; Paadavamerina - Highly Talented; Palapala - different; Melam – Play of musical instruments
Painting of Kunjan Nambiar
Similarily in his poem “Chandrangadacharitam”, he describes the wedding celebrations of Chandrangada (a mythological character from a story in Mahabharata), as:-

Alpanmaarku Rasikaan Nala Che-
Rupakaarude Mohiniyattam
Ottamthullal Valathilchaatam
Chaatam Vashalaayullandyatam
Translation (Rough):-
Alpanmaarku – For useless/jobless fellows; Rasikaan - to enjoy; Cherupakkarude - Youngsters; Ottamthullal- A performing art from Kerala; Valathilchaatam - Bouncing of a boat; Chaatam - Jumping ; Vashal - Very bad

The gist of the couplet is that the dancers in Mohiniyattam and Ottamthullal were compared to folks bouncing up & down in a boat with only wastrels seen as enjoying these art forms back then. From the above lines it is obvious how the art form was looked down upon during that period.

In the 14th century A.D, it was documented in the Malayalam epistolary poem “Unnineeli Sandesham” (please see the story below), that during the statewide travel (from Thiruvanathapuram to Kaduthuruthy) of the messenger prince Aditya Varma, all the women who were present to welcome him were known to be temple dancers. This has been noted by the historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai in his book Unnineelisandesham - Charithradrishtiyil Koodi” (Through the Eyes of History) . It was a custom for the kings of Venad to be welcomed by the Devadasis of the respective temples, whenever the former visited their region.

So it came to be that, for these dancers who lived a subdued life within the temple premises and stood by the roads to welcome the king during the time of the “Unnineeli Sandesham”, by the time of the Nambiars (royal clans in the North Malabar region), these women apparently started being the object of desire for kings/petty chieftains and graduated or rather got demoted from being temple dancers to court dancers/dancing girls/courtesans. 

Though the name Thevadichiyattam metamorphosed into Mohiniyattam, it seemed that the purity of the old art form did not hold up in the eyes of all the people within the community during those times. Also, even after time had passed, people were quite slow to accept this dance form (as is always the case whenever a profound cultural & religious shift takes place).  Mohiniyattam later became geographically restricted to just a few  parts of Kerala.

[In the Unnineelisandesham - Unnineeli is the heroine, and she and her lover live in the place called Kaduthuruthy. One night as they sleep, a fairy (Yakshi) carries her lover away and goes south. He wakes up by the time they reach Thiruvananthapuram and frees himself from the hold of the fairy. He visits Sri Padmanabha Temple and meeting Aditya Varma, a junior prince of Kollam there, engages him as a royal messenger to carry his news to his beloved in Kaduthuruthy. In Part One, the poet describes the route to Kaduthuruthy, for the benefit of the messenger as well as the reader. In Part Two, the actual message is described and entrusted to the royal messenger. The poem is a treasure house of information relating to the conditions of life in Kerala in the fourteenth century. In addition, it contains several quatrains of unexceptionable beauty, both in its thought and in its verbal felicity. In two hundred and forty stanzas, with breath-taking eroticism and exquisite imagery, this message poem reaches the high watermark of early Manipravalam poetry. It combines extreme sophistication and complexity in its poetic craft with remarkable naturalness and authenticity in its theme and thought]