Volume 2 Issue 56 | April 25 , 2009 |


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From The Inside Desk

Kerala’s Mohiniyattam

Rafi Hossain

We Bengalis are proud of the sophistication of our heritage, our history and our cultural identity, and we tend to think of ourselves as more developed in these regards than some. This belief is not entirely biased self-adulation; we have proven time and again through our achievements in different arenas that we are not lagging behind others. However to avoid stagnating, being open to external influences in our culture is becoming more and more important. This fact has already been recognised by many.

The Indian High Commission of Bangladesh, through the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, has provided many promising young artistes of Bangladesh with scholarships to help them attain higher education and training in the classical arts in India; and having achieved it, many have returned to make their mark in our cultural landscape. The Indian High Commission has recently introduced a new initiative where they invite maestros from various fields to visit Bangladesh and develop Bangladeshi talent under their direct tutelage. Each maestro shall conduct six terms, with each term spanning over one and a half months. Spreading out the programme over about two years rather then an intensive three month course shall make possible much longer periods of interaction between the gurus and the students, allowing students more opportunities to develop their skills, and the gurus a better chance of evaluating the progress of their students.

The Mohiyattam Form
As a part of this initiative, we have recently welcomed Pallavi Krishnan to Bangladesh, a practitioner of the ancient Kerala dance form of Mohiniyattam. Mohiniattam is one of the major classical dance styles of India. Mohiniattam from Kerala is perhaps one of the most graceful dances and completely relates to the green environments, gentle singing of the palm trees and the calm ocean waters of Kerala. Mohiniattam is derived from the words "Mohini" (enchantress) and "attam"(dance). Thus, Mohiniattam dance form is a beautiful feminine style with surging flow of body movements. Mohiniattam dance in Kerala developed in the tradition of Devadasi system, which later grew and got recognised as classical.

The legend of Vishnu as "Mohini", (the enchantress) forms the core of Mohiniattam dance. 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.

The theme of Mohiniattam is love and devotion to god. Vishnu or Krishna is more often then not the hero. The spectators could feel his invisible presence when the heroine or her maid details dreams and ambitions through the circular movements, delicate footsteps and subtle expression. The dancer in the slow and medium tempos is able to find adequate space for improvisations and suggestive bhavas. In format, it is similar to Bharatanatyam. The movements are graceful like Odissi and the costumes sober. It is essentially a solo dance, but nowadays Mohiniattam is performed in groups also. The repertoire of Mohiniattam follows closely that of Bharatanatyam. Beginning with Cholkettu, the dancer performs Jathiswaram, Varnam, Padam and Thillana in a concert. Varnam combines pure and expressive dance, while Padam tests the histrionic talent of a dancer and Thillana exposes her technical artistry.

The performers of Mohiniattam dance usually wear an off-white sari with gold brocade borders. The hair is decorated with jasmine flowers. The Mohiniattam dancer is adorned with gold jewellery including necklaces, bangles, waistbands and anklets. The tinkling of the jewellery produces music as the dancer performs the dance. Mohiniattam dance is accompanied by musical instruments like violin, Veena and Mridangam and the dancer narrates episodes from the epics and legends through elegant steps, rhythmic movements of her arms and amazing facial expressions. The Hastha Lakshandeepika is a classical text and forms the basis of hand and arm movement in Mohiniattam. The basic dance steps are the Adavus which are of four kinds : Taganam, Jaganam, Dhaganam and Sammisram. These names are derived from the nomenclature called Vaittari.

About Pallavi Krishnan
Pallavi Krishnan is a leading exponent of Mohiniyattam and an alumnus of both Santiniketan (Viswa Bharati University) and Kerala Kalamandalam. She is well known for her tremendous efforts to promote and preserve the Indian classical dance form as a living tradition. She is the Artistic Director of Lasya Akademi of Mohiniyattam, a centre for the promotion and professional training in Mohiniyattam, at Thrissur, which has a branch in Kolkata (West Bengal).

Pallavi studied under Guru Bharati Shivaji and later developed a style of her own, which is marked by creativity in her performance. Her skilful choreography has enriched her repertoire and inspired many young dancers to take up the form. She is interested in exploring the classical forms and experiments by fusing the distinct strains of cultural entities that form the rich composition of classical cultural heritage and has also successfully choreographed many items, both traditional and thematic.

Interview with Pallavi Krishnan
We caught up with Pallavi Krishnan during her trip to Bangladesh to find out about herself and her ideas about the classical art forms and the potential Bangladesh in this field.

Have you been to Bangladesh before?
This is the second time I am visiting Bangladesh. I have been here once before, when I conducted a similar course on Mohiniyattam.

Mohiniyattam is a new form of dance in Bangladesh, in that not many have been exposed to this form before. What kind of response are you getting from your students?
The response I am getting is more than I expected and I am very excited about the course. The students I am working with are very talented; they have been able to catch on to a form that is totally new for them and difficult to learn in a very short time. Most of my students were practitioners of other forms of dance, but having been exposed to Mohinyattam, many have expressed a serious interest in this form. I am sure with proper training and education, they will be able to take Mohiniyattam to the next level in Bangladesh.

When did you start to seriously consider Mohiniyattam as your career?
Around age 3, I visited Santiniketan with my parents. At Santiniketan I saw the various traditional dance forms. From that day onwards I had a special love for all dance forms and was soon drawn towards traditional dance forms. After completing graduation in Bio Science from Burdwan University in West Bengal I joined Santiniketan for the B.A course in dance. It was a 4 year course. As Mohiniyattam was not in the syllabus I learned it from Guru Kalamandalam Sankaranarayanan. Gradually I was drawn towards Mohiniyattam. After my degree from Santiniketan I took the permission of my parents and joined Kalamandalam for a 2 year course under the guidance of Guru Kalamandalam Sankaranarayanan. Here I got real exposure and the opportunity to learn Mohiniyattam from very senior and experienced teachers.

I then got married to K.G Gopalakrishanan, an employee with State Bank of India, Thrissur. He was a great source of inspiration and a good critic too. He is also a good writer on Keralan arts and culture. After that I settled in Thrissur and learned Mohinyattam under Guru Bharthi Shivaji. The training helped me to become more professional in every aspect. She taught me how to communicate with the audience, how to present Mohiniyattam more professionally on the stage. It was the turning point of my life.

Mohiniyattam is a serious art form. Do you think it will be possible to popularise this form and if so, how?
I strongly believe that it is possible. The responsibility of popularising this form lies entirely with us, the practitioners. If at present our audience consists of just one person, we must still perform because with proper performance, our audience will inevitably grow.

You are one among the well known dancers who has taken the mission to popularise Mohiniyattam outside its birthplace? Are you happy with the present position?
Yes I am happy with the present position. Now Mohiniyattam is also included at every national and international level competition. Many young talented artists are coming up with new ideas and themes. So it is in a developing stage.

To help keep alive serious art forms such as Mohiniyattam, what kind of assistance do you receive from the government?
We are quite lucky in this regard as we receive substantial aid from the Indian government to help propagate such art forms. Those who are passionate and have the quality required are eligible to receive a grant from the government, with which they are allowed to hire a troupe of performers and conduct performances across the nation and research. For serious performers such as us who are dedicated exclusively to our art, this is a great help.

Do you think traditional dance forms lose some its value among modern audiences?
Yes, very much. But traditional dance always has an audience. They always enjoy the show.

Are you from a traditional Mohiniyattam family? Tell us about your family.
No. I am not from a traditional Mohiniyattam family. My father Rathish Acharjee is the retired superintendent of Damodar valley corporation. My mother is a housewife. Initially they were against what I did. But now they realise the pain I underwent to learn and promote Mohiniyattam.

You have learned and associated with well known Gurus such as Kalamandalam Sankaranarayanan (Santiniketan), Kalamandalam Leelamma, Bharati Shivaji and Kalamandalam Kshemavathy. How was the experience?
It was really a great experience. I am proud and honoured to be a student of such a great gurus.

As a disciple of Santiniketan and later Kerala Kalamandalam what are the major differences you find between the two?
Saniniketan is a campus full of freedom. In Santiketan we have a healthy relationship between students of the opposite sex and also there is good communication between students and teachers. The campus life helped me to develop my personality. While Kalamandalam is a campus meant primarily for imparting intensive learning. So both campuses helped me to improve and develop the hidden talent in me.

Apart from India, where else have you performed?
I have performed extensively abroad in several countries including Australia, Canada, Poland, Austria, Switzerland and the UK.
What are your plans for the future?

Bring more and talented students to Mohiniyattam. I want to contribute more to this art form. I have to do more experiments and innovative things for the development of Mohinyattam.

Overall, how do you feel about Bangladesh?
My father was originally from Bangladesh, so I will always have a soft spot for the country. I have always wanted to come here, to get to see my roots. I met some of my relatives who I have heard about but have never before meet in person, and that feeling is hard to explain in words. I had an idea about Bangladesh before, but my ideas have totally changed after my visit. I am extremely happy that I got the chance to visit Bangladesh, and I shall be back as often as possible.

Photographs by Ferdous Ahmed



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