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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 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]


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