by Guru Nirmala Paniker
Comments by – Geo Legorreta
HISTORICAL CONTEXT –
During the Xth century in Kerala dancers and musicians were part of the community of the temples. In certain literary sources they are described as “dancers of the sky” They were known as ‘Devadasis’ – ‘Devadasi’ means a woman who serves at the feet of god.
‘Deva’ means deity, and ‘dasi’ means server. These women devoted their lives to the service of the deities of the temple. It was for the sake of these that they learnt music and dance. Their ritual activities varied: to awaken the deity and to put the deity to sleep, to sing and dance in community events, etc.
Since Devadasis were servers and wives of the gods or ‘Devavadhatu’, they were never widowed. Also, it was considered good luck to see a Devadasi before starting a trip or a business. Until half a century ago, Devadasis could still be seen in the front row in important processions.
They were dancers and artists in the community of the temples of Kerala. In those days the temples were cultural centers and meeting points for artists who coexisted in the creation of art inspired by the deities as a form of offering; thus they made art into a sacred activity. There were sculptors, painters, poets, musicians and dancers.
These developed a dance style that continues to exist today in the form of Mohiniyattam. Mohini means literally “a young woman who arouses desire or steals the heart away from whoever looks at her”.
However, Mohiniyattam has also been influenced by the circular folk dance of Kerala, Thiruvatirakali, which is danced by women of all ages.
This is one of the many traditional and ritual art forms born in Kerala that have been preserved, which also include Kathakali, Kuttiyattam, Tullai, Teyam, Thiruvatirakali, Pavakathakali etc. Very few of these arts are known in Mexico.
Several of these art forms are dance-theater in Sanskrit, and they emphasize the detailed acting and narration of mythological stories that are well known to the collective memory.
Natya Shastra, the treatise on Theater and Dance by Bharata Muni, describes Mohiniyattam as “Kasiki” or graceful. It consists of mellow postures and belongs to the ‘Lasya’ style, which is feminine, tender and graceful. The Kaisiki style is the most appropriate for exhibiting erotic feelings or the ‘Sringaram’ rasa. It is said that the arms, legs and body of the dancer of Mohiniyattam must be soft and graceful, like the waves of a tranquil ocean or the swaying of rice fields in the breeze.
Kerala is surrounded on its western coast by the Arabic ocean. It is a luxuriant tropical land, with an abundance of rivers and spices, elephants and cotton. It was long protected from the British invasion due to its geography and to the great mountain chains that kept it isolated by land. Portuguese conquerors entered Kerala from the coast in search of its spices and metals, and brought the influence of Christianity with its colorful churches.
The conditions and circumstances of the region made this fruition possible. The people of Kerala have always considered art as part of their everyday life. The princes and kings of Kerala were highly educated, cultured and talented, and they had a refined aesthetic sensitivity. They were promoters and patrons of the arts and they nurtured institutes that maintained each art form in all its purity and splendor.
The royal family of Travancore focused mainly on music and ‘lasya’ dance, of a lyrical and mellow style. They supported the training of ‘lasya’ dancers. They developed these cultural centers or institutions in three regions: Andra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Contacts between these dance schools and exchanges of teachers for practices and performances were ongoing. Music was also sung in various languages: Kanada, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and Sanskrit.
The characteristics of these dances are more or less even across India; although there are differences in the movements and the costumes, the basic elements of theme and style are surprisingly similar.
In India all classical dances share a common root ––the ancient treatise Natya Shastra, which describes in detail the conventions in the arts of drama and dance, as well as the processes and elements of technical training and codes to perform on stage, etc. This treatise was very valuable for the dance and theater Gurus who survived the British colonization in the process o restoring the performing arts after the independence.
In the XIXth century, Maharaja Swathi Thirunal gave generously toward the development and stabilization of Mohiniyattam. In 1829 he was enthroned at age 16. He was skilled in English and in many Indian languages. He promoted the arts, mainly music and dance. During his reign, there was an abundant flow of artists and academics from all parts of India to Kerala. The Maharaja himself composed Padams (narrative dances) for Mohiniyattam in the native language – Malayalam, and also in other languages. He composed dances that enriched the musical aspect and rendered it attractive. He composed 50 padams, 20 Varnams and 5 Tillanas and was patron to a dance company.
During the British occupation, these dancers were known as ‘nautch’ or ‘women who entertain with their dance’.
Pran Nevile in his book ‘Nautch Girls of India’ says: “The nautch represented cultural interaction between the native and the early English settler in India. This girls held the white sahib spellbound for nearly two centuries. ‘Delicate in person, soft in her features, perfect in form’ she captivated the heats of the ordinary Englishmen by her grace and charm’.”