STORY AND TECHNIQUES OF MOHINIYATTAM
BY NIRMALA PANIKER
Mohiniyattam, one of the classical dances of India, is a beautiful dance form of Kerala women.
Cilappathikaram which is written in the Chera Kingdom (present Kerala) by about 2000 years ago by a Chera prince, has given enough evidences to prove that a highly established dance system of women was already existed at that time. This book has given details about the
danseuse’s hand gestures, body movements and the different items they were performing.
Scholars are of the opinion that the temples with stones and wood have been taken place in Kerala by the 7th or 8th century AD, And that was the time the Devadasi cult also came to Kerala. When the Devadais entered they would have witnessed the highly developed acting and dance traditions of Kerala and vice versa too. And with a mutual influences the present day Mohiniyattam would have been developed.
The first reference of the word Mohiniyattam is to be found in the Vyavaharamala which is written in the 18th century AD. It speaks about the rules to be observed when artistes share the fee they receive for a performance.
But if you go deep into the matter of the origins of Mohinyattam, you can understand that it is connected with the mother goddess worship. Long before the Vedic culture entered Kerala, the mother goddess worship was one of the most important cults in Kerala. Every village had its own deity and festivals.
The yearly festivals were conducted with ritual art forms like Teyyam, Thira, Mudiyettu, Patayani, Kurathiyattam etc.
One of the forms of goddess also has the name Mohnini. The mother goddess or Parvathy in her creative mood is known as Natewsari or Mohini. In this form Parvathy has to attract Shiva to be one with her, and for which she has to attract him to bring him to the mood. So she does a beautiful dance. That is why she is Nateswary/Mohini. So it will be more correct to say Mohiniyattam is the continuation of the Adi Bhagavati’s or Parvathy’s dance.
In the folk tales, one of the forms of Parvathy is considered as Kurathy, which is considered as one of the ancient forms of goddess who posses a lot of magical power. Like Parvathi, Kuraties are also daughters of mountains or in other words the hill tribe. Natya Sastra (the oldest treatise written on dance, music, theater and all sorts of art forms by about 4th century BC) also says that Parvathy is the first Lasya danseuse and her dance was known as Lasya. In Natya Sastra in the explanations of the Vrithies, Kaisiki is done by the females. Mohiniyattam - the Lasya dance of Kerala comes under the Kaisiki vrithy. These aspects will give us clear picture of the close relationship of mother goddess and Mohiniyattam. Also the strong mother goddess worship of Kerala.
Revival of Mohiniyattam at Kerala Kalamandalam
In 1930’s at Kerala Kalamandalam sri Vallathol Narayana Menon and sri Mukunda Raja took initiative and started a course in Mohiniyattam and that was the beginning of the revival of this present form.
At that time guru Krishna Paniker Asan and a few disciples Mankara Kalyani Amma, Chinnammu Amma and Kunjukutty Amma were the only Mohiniyattam practitioners they could find. Due to lack of patronage and practitioners, by the time it reached Kerala Kalamandalam it lost many of its aspects. But the immediate action taken by Vallathol was - what ever was available to transmit to the next generation - was done at Kerala Kalamandalam.
One of the first students of KK: Kalyanikutty Amma (see article “Tribute” in Forum) did a lot of research and a specific formation was developed in the ‘atavus’ (dance units) and items of the repertoire, so she was fondly remembered as the mother of Mohiniyattam.
In KK Smt. Chinnammu Amma and Smt. Sathyabhama did a lot of work and enriched this art form by choreographing many new items. Smt. Sathyabhama has composed many Swathy Thirunal’s padams and varnams (items of the repertoire). Like this the present day format of Mohiniyattam was taken shape.
During this revival period Ashtapadis from Gita Govid, lullabies like Omanathinkal kidavo, Sthutis like Karuna Cheyvan entu tamasam Krishna etc. became part of this dance form.
Natanakaisiki Mohiniyattam Gurukulam of Natanakairali
In Kerala Natanakairali and institution founded by Sri G. Venu to preserve and promote the dying art forms of Kerala, started a research wing for Mohiniyattam. And a book was published in 1982 with the notations of hand gestures and body postures by Venjui and Nirmala Paniker. Then the abhinaya (acting) aspect was taken care with special importance. Natanakaisiki the Mohiniyattam wing of Natanakairali by Nirmala Paniker after her 30 years of studies, has rejuvenated a few of the traditional old Mohiniyattam items called Easal, Poli, Chandanam, Kurathy etc.
The accompaniment instruments used for Mohiniyattam in olden days were: Toppimaddalam, Mukha vina, Thithi, Edakka and Kuzhithalam. At Kalamandalm the great poet Vallathole has introduced Mritangam in place of Maddalam and made the musicians sit at the right side of the danseuse instead of being at the back of her.
Like many other Indian dance forms, Mohiniyattam also could be divided mainly into two parts. The Nritha (pure dance) and Nrithya (expository dance).
Mandalam-s (knee flexions) pada bheda-s (feet movements), padachari-s (feet gaits) and nritha hastas (pure hand gestures) are the major parts of the pure dance patterns. Beautiful combinations of all these above mentioned aspects are called ‘atavus’ of which there are about 55 to 60 of them appearing in the Natanakaisiki repertoire. These atavus is a combination of Kalamandalam and Guru Kalyanikutty Amma’s styles.
a) Madalams (stances)
Basic posture of the feet is considered as one of the most important aspects of many of the dance forms, in Mohiniyattam the basic posture is known as Aramandalam. In Thiruvathirakali (a group dance form of Kerala women very closely related to Mohiniyattam) this position is known as vattakkalil thanu nilkuka (means – bend your leg and stand). Most of the atavus begin from this basic position.
b) Foot works
In Mohiniyattam there are five different usages of pada-s which are known as Hamsa (swan) padam, Kukkuda (hen) padam, Mayoora (peacock) padam, Mandooka (frog) padam and Naga (snake) bandham.
- Hamsapadam (swan) – touching the front part of the foot on the floor and then pressing the rest and going forward is known as hamsapada.
- Kukkudapada (hen) – heel of one leg is put first then bring the other leg and keep it flat on the floor. Then the first leg also should be put flat. This is called Kukkudapada.
- Mayurapada (peacock) – the front part (toes and adjacent part of the legs) only should touch the ground and then move side ways. This is called Mayurapadam. In Jeagajagajam dhittha atavu, this padam is used.
- Mandookapadam (frog) – one leg softly tap on the ground and jump forward with the same leg then immediately bring the other one also and join that too next to the first one.
They are the basic units, which are sub-divisions of pure dance (nritha) aspects of Mohiniyattam. These are produced by the combination of various types of gestures, body movements, mandalams, footworks, padabhedas and cari-s (gaits). When Mohinyattam is taught, to ensure that the student develop graceful pure dance patterns, it is these ‘atavus’ that are practiced.
These atavus have been subdivided into Taganam, Jaganam, Dhaganam and Sammisram. The division is made according to the vaythari-s (syllables) used for these atavus. For example: the first atavu’s vaythari-s is “tai/tai/ti/ti/tai/tai/ti/ti”. Like this all taganam atavu’s vaytharis starts with the letter tai/ti/ta etc. Similarly jaganam with ja, dhaganam with dha and sammisram has all kinds of vaytharis and that is why it si called sammisram. Sammisram is known as Vakram too. Because the rythms for these atavus are also a bit complicated. There are about 55 to 60 atavus in total, belonging to the two major styles of Kerala, the Kalamandalm style and guru Kalyanikutty amma style.
D ) Repertoire
In Mohiniyattam these are choreographed with beautiful patterns and rhythm to create beauty or to support the bhava (mood), the vaytharies (syllables) are always used in a raga (melody) only. Most of the Mohiniyattam items have these pure dance patterns (for example – Cholkettu, Jathiswaram, Varnam, Thillana, Saptham, Kurathy, Easel, Chandam and Poli). Amongst these in Chollettu, Jathiswaram and Thillana, the nritha assumes greater prominence. The Cholkettu consists of stylized rhythmic syllables in tune with raga and the danseuse with pure dance patterns dances appropriate to it. Jathiswaram is an assemblage of swara-s (musical notes) within the framework of the raga and tala (rhythmic pattern). Beautiful sculpturesque postures and atavus are combined with intricate rhythm and designed to highlight the grace (kaisiki aspect) of this dance style. Thillana-s have a lot of rhythmic vaythari-s and these have been beautifully choreographed with nritha (pure dance) aspects of Mohiniyattam. These are the major elements of nritha patterns of Mohiniyattam.
In 1930’s at Kerala Kalamandalam sri Vallathol N.M. and sri Manakulam M.R. revived Mohiniyattam and took the initiative to scrutinized most of the items that existed and due to some social reasons selected only five out of them and included in the syllabus. These were Cholkettu – the invocation dance, Jathiswaram - a pure dance item, Varnam – combining pure dance and expository dance, Padam – a narrative dance and Thillana –the closing item.
Later on Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty amma did a lot of research and choreographies and added to the repertoire.
Natanakaisiki research center and gurukulam has revived the other items like Poli, Easel, Chandanam and Kurathy which were in vogue in ancient times, with the financial assistance from department of culture Govt. of India New Delhi. With this the old repertoire has fully got revived.
2) Abhinaya/expository dance
3) The Natya Sastra classifies the factors of acting under four-heads:
a) Angikam which exclusively deals with bodily movements in all their subtle intricacies,
c) Ahariam which implies costume and make up and
d) Satvikam with is the accurate representation of the entire gamut of mental and emotional feelings sought to be conveyed by the actor through physical demonstrations.
All these four aspects of the art of communication have been included in the Mohiniyattam style of dance with delightful artistic sensitivity among these the satvikam abhinaya gets more important into the genuine feelings or sentiments of the mind and these can well be seen in this art form.
Facial expressions includes the movement of the eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, nose, lips, cheeks etc.
The hand gestures used in Mohiniyattam are mostly drawn from the Hastalaksanadipika, a Keralite authoritative text on this subject, other classical performing arts of Kerala have adopted too the main hand gestures from this treatise only, but each dance form has brought about its own minor alter
ations in the pattern and presentation of these hasta-mudras to suit its own special needs. Mohiniyattam has accepted the 24 basic mudras of the Hastalaksanadipika, over and above these, some mudras from other classical texts like Abhinayadarpana, Natya Sastra and Balaramabharatha.