Mohiniattam: Epical legend resurrected

By Akash Shukla

In an off-white saree with gold brocade border, the danseuse gathers her hair in a bun and decorates it with jasmine flowers. Decked with gilded necklaces, bangles, waistbands and anklets, she gyrates to the tunes of veena (वीणा) and mridanga (मृदङ्गं )in elegant steps and narrates epical tales like people have never heard before. Behold the musical and dancing magic of Kerala– Mohiniattam.

With Mohini as the enchantress and attam being her dance, the solo female dancer, who drapes a single piece of costume, sways from side to side and her unbroken body flow in that rhythm is the most striking feature. This beautiful and feminine dance style is teamed with surging flow of body movements and is a pretty polite reminder of Hindu god lord Vishnu who transformed into Mohini to digress demons from Amrit (elixir) as they were at loggerheads for the same with the devtas (gods); temptress Mohini’s dance at that epical juncture forms the core of Mohiniattam now.

Later in Kerala, this dance form found its way in the tradition of devdasi system until it achieved the classical status. Sculptures, engravings and inscriptions from the temples date back to the ninth century and support this claim. More allusions to the dance form are visible in the 12th century literature.

In Kerala, devadasis were called under the name Teviticci which meant ‘servant at the feet of god’ (Tevar = God, Ati = feet, Acci = woman).  For several years, they were revered. A report from 18th century details the salary of dancers.

Dabbling in the theme of sringara (love) coupled with suggestive abhinaya (acting), Mohiniattam, which employs subtle gestures, rhythmic footwork and lilting music, was revived in 19th century by Travancore’s enlightened ruler Swati Tirunal.

He promoted the study of Mohiniattam by writing 20 Varnams, 50 Padams and 5 Tillanas.  On festive occasions and in the houses of wealthy merchants and courtiers, Mohiniattam was greatly revered. Swati Tirunal promoted Mohiniattam but his followers promoted only Kathakali (a male dance style). Consequently, Mohiniattam began to slip into oblivion. The advent of British Raj brought about a prohibition on public dancing and this hit the scene of Indian dance forms terribly. The gradual disappearance of Indian dance forms in league with dilemma of dancers to include obscene dance pieces hit India like a double whammy since it was already grappling with the pangs of colonisation.

As a result, dance pieces like Polikali, Esalen, Mukkuthi and Candanam forayed into the traditional Mohiniattam.

Malayalam poet Vallathol Narayanan established Kerala Kalamandalam dance school in 1930 and played a key role in reviving Mohiniattam. He did so to revive the other local arts as well, namely, Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Thullal. In a bid to revive the essence of the dance form, the curriculum of Mohiniattam included only the classical features and rejected all that was irrelevant.

Diving further deep into the kinesthetics of Mohiniattam, Hastha Lakshana Deepika comes to fore as it forms the basis of hands’ and arms’ movement in Mohiniattam. Thanks to Vallathol Narayanan and Swati Tirunal, we not only can recollect Mohiniattam in thought, word and deed but can also continue to relish it for real as well.

See more- Mohiniattam: Tradition rekindled in dance steps!


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